Bella Voce’s Byrd program takes flight at Ganz Hall

Sun Oct 08, 2023 at 2:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Bella Voce Camerata performed music of William Byrd Saturday night at Ganz Hall. Photo: Magda Krance

One rarely encounters music of William Byrd on local concert platforms, so the opportunity to hear Bella Voce devote an entire evening to works of the English Elizabethan composer (c.1540-1623) was a self-recommending occasion.

The season-opening program, heard at Ganz Hall Saturday night, was presented in the choir’s down-sized chamber form as Bella Voce Camerata, befitting the more intimate nature of the music. Artistic director Andrew Lewis was visible more as personable host than in his conductor role. The program will be repeated Sunday in Evanston.

The main item was Byrd’s late masterwork, the Mass for Five Voices. As Lewis pointed out, the Mass was, in essence, an underground work. A Latin mass by a Catholic composer was a dangerous venture in 1595 England, and music that could only be performed privately and in secret at a time when lay faithful were being jailed and Catholic priests executed. Like his fellow Catholic Thomas Tallis, it is likely that Byrd’s fame and political/court connections prevented him from a similar fate of being imprisoned in the Tower or taken to the block.

Saturday night’s performance of the a cappella Mass by the Bella Voce Camerata was a satisfying one. At times one wanted a smoother blending of the voices as well as a more varied response to the text. Yet the differentiated timbres underlined the modal style and effectively conveyed Byrd’s masterful polyphony as well as the austere beauty of this remarkable music. The singers were soprano Allison Selby Cook, mezzo Amanda Koopman, tenors Ryan Townsend Strand and Matthew Dean and bass John Orduña.

Tenor Ryan Townsend Strand performed Byrd’s “O Lord, how long wilt thou forget” Saturday night. Photo: Magda Krance

The second half consisted of four selections from Byrd’s Song Books—music written more for domestic entertainment than religious worship.

The clear highlight of the set was “O Lord, how long wilt thou forget.” The lovely rendition by Ryan Townsend Strand showed the singer’s high tenor to fine effect in an inward performance that ideally blended stylistic elegance and expressive poise.

Soprano Cook offered a worthy account of the lilting “My mind to me a kingdom is,” while Koopman’s rendering of “Farewell, false love,” proved rather bland, failing to find much emotion in Sir Water Raleigh’s acidulous text.

The concluding pair of more spiritually centered works (“An earthlie tree a heavenly fruit” and “Christ rising again—Christ is risen again”) came off well with Cook and Koopman as the duo lead singers, and the backing male voices underlying the madrigal-like vitality of the ensemble sections. Lewis made his only conducting appearance of the evening to lead the complex final setting and the results were manifest in the tighter, more unified performance.

Violists da gamba Katherine Shuldiner, Anna Steinhoff, Craig Trompeter and Russell Wagner provided a warm, well-blended and mostly polished instrumental quartet for the singers in the songs of the second half. Wagner’s instrument veered off pitch and had to be retuned more than once. Byrd’s Fantazia a 4, inserted into the middle of the mass, became a more protracted interlude than intended with the pre-tuning going on nearly as long as the piece itself.

At a time when program notes are going the way of public safety in Chicago, the annotations by Lewis and BV managing director Betsy Hoats were a pleasure to read—intelligent and historically detailed yet wearing their scholarship lightly and presented in an engaging, user-friendly manner.

The program will be repeated 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston. 

Bella Voce performs Handel’s Messiah November 19.

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