by Mike Telin

Oberlin Collegium“England is one of our rather frequent places to visit. In part it has to do with the richness of the sound that the repertory offers,” Oberlin Collegium director Steven Plank told us during a recent telephone conversation. “Almost everything that we are singing on this program is very richly scored so it suits the ensemble well. It’s also the kind of music that revels in glorious sound and the combination of those two things make it rather inviting.”

On Friday, May 2 and Saturday, May 3 in Fairchild Chapel, the Collegium Musicum Oberliniensis under the direction of Steven Plank presents Musica Britannica. Performances feature Gibbons’s O Clap Your Hands, Browne’s O Maria Salvatoris, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, O salutaris hostia and Sacerdotes Domini, Tye’s Missa euge bone, Sheppard’s Salvator mundi, Domine and Libera nos and Paul Mealor’s Ubi Caritas. An abbreviated version of the concert will be presented on Wednesday, May 7 at 12:10 noon as part of Trinity Cathedral’s Brownbag Concert Series.

Plank points out that the English choral tradition has a very long history and is also a tradition that remains visible today. “I think one of the telling points is that both the Oxbridge Chapels and the English Cathedrals are such a rich strand of modern commercial music making through recordings and DVD’s. Other traditions are equally old but their persistence is either veiled or they haven’t persisted as long. There is a reason we used to get up at 3 in the morning to watch royal weddings.”

Speaking of royal weddings, the concerts include Paul Mealor’s Ubi Caritas, which was composed for the 2011 royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. “We often will throw in one modern piece as counterpoint. And it is always something that fits thematically — there is a rationale for it and it’s not just a blind choice. It’s nice that you asked about the continuity of tradition because this is a rather good example of that. You can hear a certain degree of kinship in the earlier pieces and his. Not in any technical way but in the evocations of sound, and I think that’s compelling. Sometimes putting modern and old pieces side by side [allows] you hear the old in a slightly different way. And we like to explore that.”

And how do the works on this program compare and or contrast one another? “Interesting question. One of the things with the program is that it’s focused rather earlier in the 16th century then what you might often times think of as the golden age, the time of Elizabeth. But with the John Brown we’re actually going back to around 1500, and mid-century for the Christopher Tye. So putting the clock back automatically is going to give the program a slightly different twist. There is some Byrd in there for familiarity but this is earlier then most golden age kinds of programs.”

Plank said he finds the Eton piece, Browne’s O Maria Salvatoris, to be very different in style from everything else on the program. “It’s eight voices in an often rather florid way, wide range, low, low basses, very high trebles. And lots of intricate filigree to fill up a really awesome sense of space. This is a big tonal landscape kind of music with rather slow harmonic motion. It’s as though he creates a sonic envelope and it’s a very big envelope to fill up with lots of intricate things.”

Plank finds the Eton Choir Book to be fascinating on many levels. “If you were to look at the manuscript of the Browne work, the opening illumination shows the arms of Eton College. And the signature kind of piece in the choir book was a large scale votive antiphon to Mary that they would have sung at the end of the day before an image of Mary.” Plank adds that at Eton College there is a chapel dedicated to Mary that in the 15th century was adorned by Marian paintings on the choir walls. “I think those were whitewashed around 1560 and weren’t rediscovered until the 19th century. And there was an indulgence that you could receive for being at Eton on the Feast of the Assumption. In the 15th century this would have been celebrated with a six-day fair. So Mary plays a really big role in the culture of the Eton Chapel and the Browne is just one example of those glorious Marian Antiphons.”

Plank also thinks it fascinating that the text of Browne’s work makes reference to Oxford. “It refers to three saints, Saint Frideswide, Mary Magdalene and Saint Catherine. Frideswide is the patron Saint of Oxford and Magdalen College Oxford was founded in 1458 by a former provost of Eton. And it might be that John Browne was Chaplain to the Earl of Oxford. So there are interesting ties to the two institutions. But Browne’s work is both glorious and rather striking in its relationship to the other pieces on the program.”

“Christopher Tye’s Missa euge bone is a good example of English composers who were caught spanning the range of monarchs who had very different religious persuasions from one another,” Steve Plank says with a chuckle. “Tye was a member of Edward VI’s Chapel Royal and a product of Cambridge, which kind of places him on the evangelical side. He is very famous for a metrical setting of the Acts of the Apostles – vernacular English things. But like other composers, he was active at the time of Mary so he’s got a rich Latin repertory as well, of which the euge bone mass is the big masterpiece.”

Although his music is not included on the program, just for fun Plank added that Thomas Tallis is actually the best example of a composer who straddled very different religious persuasions of monarchs. “He served Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, if you can imagine the religious roller coaster that England was riding at that time and what it meant for musical style. Today we see Tallis as somebody who has so much variety, but it’s a practical variety. So with composers like Tye or John Sheppard, who’s also on the program, you have that similar kind of range of styles that are reflecting who’s on the throne.”

In addition to the Oberlin and Cleveland performances Collegium Musicum Oberliniensis will travel to Columbus for a performance at Pontifical College Josephinum on Sunday, May 4.


Published on April 29, 2014.

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