Immersive “Secret Byrd” event keeps focus on the music at National Cathedral

Mon Mar 06, 2023 at 12:03 pm
By Alex Baker

Cathedra performed music of William Byrd Sunday at Washington National Cathedral. Photo: Colin S. Johnson/WNC

Cathedra, the resident vocal ensemble at the Washington National Cathedral, offered “Secret Byrd,” a unique presentation of the works of William Byrd Sunday night, created and directed by Bill Barclay.

This traveling production, which is appearing across the U.S. and the U.K. with different sets of artists, features the works of Elizabethan composer William Byrd in an “immersive” setting that highlights the religious persecution Byrd faced as a Catholic in England, particularly in the later half of his life. 

The evening’s major work, Byrd’s Mass for 5 voices, is one of a series of settings of the Mass Ordinary which Byrd composed in the 1590s, at a time when performance of the Catholic service was illegal and had to be hidden from ever-present government surveillance. While Byrd’s fame and place in the Elizabethan court afforded him some protection from the most extreme sanctions, the Mass and the circumstances of its composition recall a world of furtive, private worship and fear of discovery.

The concert was presented in the National Cathedral’s vaulted crypt and lit entirely by candlelight. The five members of Cathedra, clad in period costumes (by Arthur Oliver) and using period part-book props, assumed the roles of Catholic nobles gathered around the last of an evening feast to read through Byrd’s setting. Audience members were invited to move freely about the space to observe the performance and could partake of food and drinks as the singers dramatized a communion officiated by Cathedral music director Michael McCarthy in the role of a priest.

Cathedra brought a beguiling blend and warmth to the Mass, each voice ringing out clearly in the intimate space. The group maintained a lively pace throughout, emphasizing the interplay between voices and demonstrating a tight-knit sense of cohesion. There was the occasional misfire in intonation or a single voice sticking out from the texture—as well as stretches that, while expressively sung, seemed to lack a sense of direction and deliberate detail. On the other hand, the presence of just a few rough edges was likely a better fit for the evening’s conceit.

Besides the Mass performance (the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass for 4 voices was also added), Crossley Hawn, whose soaring soprano was a recurring highlight of the combined vocal texture, offered a compelling solo performance of Byrd’s “Elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis.” Two additional works for 6 voices, Byrd’s Infelix ego and Haec Dies, added McCarthy as well as support from the Viol Consort. These bravura pieces revealed a bigger, more exuberant sound from Cathedra after the sober Mass, though they also presented few more coordination issues with larger forces spread across the space.

The Viol Consort brought a burnished period tone to the instrumental pieces which served as interludes for the vocal program, including two of Byrd’s Fantasias in Six Parts, and the Pavan and Galliard in Six Parts, though some of these performances seemed only intended as background music.

“Secret Byrd” is an intriguing example of how to create a non-traditional concert experience. A common pitfall of attempts to expand the boundaries of the concert hall is treating the music being performed as a soundtrack or a means to create a certain atmosphere, without addressing the music on its own terms. 

“Secret Byrd” largely avoids this pitfall by enhancing the context around the music instead of competing with it (the one significant dramatic intervention is tastefully done and relatively short). Moreover, the presentation doesn’t strive to engage in significant interpretation or expand the scope of the music; while that makes its ambitions somewhat limited, they are clearly defined and sure to leave an impression on the audience and their understanding of Byrd’s life and work. 

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the form the theatrical presentation takes serves the interests of the music rather than working against it, by allowing audiences a rare chance to experience expert singers performng this detailed, intimate music in close quarters.

Washington National Cathedral presents Duruflé’s Requiem and Poulenc motets 4 p.m. April 2.

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