Tuesday, July 7, 2020

My Experience with Racism


I'm lucky only to have experienced racism twice—once in Seattle and most recently in 2018 on a tour in Latvia, which I would like to share with you. 

Seattle, a multicultural haven compared to Latvia (and the Baltics generally), did not prepare me, to what degree I could feel like a racial minority. In Latvia, non-whites make up less than half percent of the population, and it was obvious. I was walking around a sea of white people sticking out like a brown thumb—it was a little bit unnerving. 

One of my favorite things to do when I'm on tour is to get some late night drinking in at a local bar (surprise!). When bar hoping, I will often choose the next bar based on bartender recommendation—it's crazy where one can end up. I find the bar to be a special place where honest and unfiltered expressions of humanity (albeit aided by a handy truth serum) take place, and witnessing that is incredible. Some people like to go sight-seeing in a foreign country, I want to get to know the people there and get a sense of their concerns, attitudes, and desires. 

 The day was winding down and I thought I'd give my roommate a few hours head start on sleeping—my snoring is no match for even the most trained sleeper and I very much like this person. I decided to head to the bar and a man (who's name I cannot remember), already a few drinks in, approached me with a somewhat aggressive posture and started ranting, in a very broken incoherent way, about how he hates multiculturalism and how it's not working in the USA or in Europe, and that Asians are taking all the jobs. Needless to say, I did not feel welcome and it felt personal. I, however, did not engage, but just kept listening, asked him a few questions, and kept drinking. I literally just smiled, nodded, listened, and laughed with him when he made a joke. By the end of the end of the night, the man I was worried might punch me for being Asian, put his arm around me and said, "you know, you're okay." 

 I look back on that moment and realize that my life growing up in Seattle had a million micro encounters just like this one (though not as threatening). My experience at Eckstein Middle School in the 90s was one of self segregation—everyone generally hung out with those in the same race, but we were encouraged, through band, academics, and after school activities to mingle with others outside our social circle. I can now fully appreciate the value, though the lens of my encounter with Latvian man, of how important that was. When someone in the Asian gangster circle teaches a White nerd how to dance, when an Asian nerd helps the White jock with homework, when a Black vocal jazz singer and a White guy burst out in uncontrollable laughter, there are a million tiny bridges being built that lead to a world where the 'other' doesn't exist, and that everyone is living in the same world, with their own concerns and desires. I wish this could be a starting point from where we can start bridging our racial divide. I was recently invited to a teacher POC-only happy hour (which I did not attend) and was saddened to see that our institutions are encouraging the formation of groups by race and identity—safe spaces. While I disagree with this approach (but respect those that find these spaces valuable), I will continue to do my part, irregardless of your race and identity, to drink with you, listen to you, argue with you, laugh with you, and show you that there is no 'other' here, just us.

Fourth of July Reflection


I was supposed to be a lawyer (eventually President), my brother a doctor, and sister a nurse. My parents had this all planned out when they immigrated to Seattle in 1978 from the Philippines to get married and start a family. (My grandfather on my mom's side and his family were granted US citizenship for his service in the US Navy). They had a rare opportunity to chase the American dream, far from abject poverty, and customize their own future, family, and riches. 

The fact that none of us fulfilled our predetermined occupations, at least so far, is only one of the many points of reality we confronted chasing the American dream. The painstaking process of assimilating in a culture that shared little in common with the Filipino Catholic culture that reared my parents, made for a lot of tears and fights. Why do my American friends get to spend the night at their friends house every Friday, while I stay home and study? We had a sense of duty to my parents for the sacrifice they made—the least we could do was do well in school. Growing up, the American dream felt like a farce. If anyone deserved an A+ for effort, it was my parents. 

Turns out the American dream was not the promise of a McMansion with two Mercedes Benzes (Benzi?) in the driveway as it was advertised—it is much deeper than that. I am not wealthy, but I cannot help but wonder how many other Filipinos out there are living the same bougie artsy life, traveling the world performing, recording, and studying Renaissance music; and sharing choral music with all of you. On a darker note, how many people outside of the US still live under oppressive regimes where such a life is a pipe dream and live in constant fear of saying the wrong thing? 

I admit it's slightly perverse to reflect on this on this particular 4th of July, where patriotic morale is the lowest I can remember. But maybe it's just the right time. Our social cohesion is being strength-tested like no other time in my lifetime, and our journey towards the 'pursuit of happiness' for all looks more daunting than ever. Not everyone is as lucky as I am, but I'm feeling grateful. 

Today, I'm choosing to remember why it's all worth it. Tomorrow, it's back to work.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

On Virtual Choirs



Editing all this virtual choir stuff really brings to light the intangible musical things that happen automatically when we are making music in person. When singers are tasked with singing along to a click track with a fixed tempo and pitch, the results are remarkably varied, even among the best singers. This is what's most time consuming about editing virtual choir videos together—getting everything lined up and in the same pitch universe so it sounds like an ensemble, instead of chaos. 

It's surprising how subjective pitch and time are, even while singing along to a fixed click track. In a sense, nobody is wrong, but these minute differences are worked out immediately when we are making music in the same room, like magic. While I would still argue that it's possible to achieve a higher level of performance and interpretation on this medium, we should not take for granted the real magic that happens when musicians are together, for that is what makes live performances so special.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Byrd Ensemble Commission


Byrd Ensemble, by Amber Favre

I'll never forget the moment I realized that choral music was my emotional outlet. I was in high school, heart broken by a long-time crush, and found myself seeking solace in William Harris's "Faire is the Heaven." This song has nothing to do with heart break, at least in the way I was experiencing it, but the sound of choral music was like a powerful spell that took all of my intense emotions in the moment and wrung it out like a wet towel, leaving me in a state of peace. 

My relationship with choral music had begun. What was once an emotional outlet has become a life-long journey chasing a sound in my head, that I have come close to, but will never attain, like a 'mathematical limit.' This chase is what drives me—there is nothing more perfect than hearing what's in your head in real life. The rare moments in concert where Byrd's "Tristitia et anxietas," or "Ad Dominum" are perfectly sung, technically, with the right voices at the right speed, is indescribable. It is a kind of miracle, as if the meaning of my entire life has been suddenly distilled in this precise moment in time. It's so overwhelming all I want to do is fall to my knees and cry. Thankfully, we drink heavily after each concert—nobody needs to see that. 

Byrd Ensemble is where this journey began and will always be at the center of my musical life. While COVID has kept us off the stage, it felt like the right time to commission a piece that reflects how meaningful Byrd Ensemble is to my life. I could not be more happy with Amber Favre's work—a timeless representation of what we do. Thank you Amber Favre, I cannot tell you how meaningful this is to me.

Order prints here
Discount code is "ByrdEnsemble20" for 20% off.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Monuments of the Renaissance


MONUMENTS OF THE RENAISSANCE: Spem in alium
Saturday, October 12, 2019, at 8:00 p.m.
St. James Cathedral
804 Ninth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104 
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PROGRAM

TALLIS: Loquebantus variis linguis
TALLIS: Lamentations II
TALLIS: In jejunio et fletu
CARVER: O bone Jesu a19


GABRIELI: Magnificat (octavi toni)
BYRD: Tristitia et anxietas
LOBO: Versa est in luctum
TALLIS: Spem in alium a40

     Renaissance polyphony has survived the test of time. While the text is mostly sacred, the music possesses an inherent beauty that enchants listeners from all backgrounds. Nothing compares to the sound of human voices in their purest form, without accompaniment, singing this ancient music—it delivers a profound sense of human achievement.
     For tonight’s program, we are excited to share with you a selection of the most complex, introspective, and soul-wrenching works from the period.
     Thomas Tallis (1505–1585) had the hard task of composing under four successive Tudor monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I) during a period of political and religious instability and was able to adapt his musical style to meet their demands. Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he broke away from the Catholic church in 1534, paving the way for the Protestant Reformation, which favored simpler forms of writing and introduced sacred music in the vernacular. The Reformation flourished under the first two Tudors (Henry VIII and Edward VI) until Mary I’s accession in 1553. Mary I, a devout Catholic determined to crush the Protestant faith, restored the Catholic Rite to the English church during her brief reign, and the compositional style reverted back to the more elaborate and florid writing prevalent earlier in the century.
     England’s return to Catholicism called for a shift in compositional style, and Latin and polyphonic textures returned to prominence. It is possible Tallis secretly welcomed the return of Catholicism. During Mary I’s short time, he produced a large  number  of  works  including  a   Pentecost    responsory Loquebantur variis linguis. Tallis weaves an intricate web of polyphony around the chant in the tenor part, with the remaining six parts all depicting the apostles speaking in tongues.
     Tallis’s two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah are among the most beloved works of Tudor polyphony. While both settings are of readings for the Maundy Thursday liturgy, we do not know if Tallis intended them for liturgical performance or private, devotional use. The musical style suggests they were composed during Elizabeth I’s reign. Tallis captures an incredibly heavy, solemn mood in his settings which leaves the listener haunted. We are performing Tallis’s second setting of the Lamentations.
     In jejunio et fletu was first published in 1575 as part of Cantiones Sacrae, a large collection of sacred motets composed by Tallis and his pupil William Byrd. Scored for lower voices, Tallis creates a very somber sound in this penitential motet for Ash Wednesday. The text describes priests “fasting and weeping,” and, more pertinently, begging the Lord to spare His people from having their (Catholic?) heritage destroyed.


     The centerpiece of the program is Tallis’s crowning achievement, Spem in alium. Tallis composed the 40-part tour de force in 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each. According to a letter written by Thomas Wateride in 1611, a song of 30 parts was sent from Italy to a music-loving duke in England, who asked if an “Englishman could sett as good a songe.” Tallis took up the challenge and set the text of the Matins response “Spem in alium” to a total of 40 parts.


     Supposing the “30” to be a mistake, the Italian song that inspired Tallis is likely to have been the 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem or Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno, both by Alessandro Striggio. Striggio probably met Tallis while on a European tour that stopped in London in June 1567.
     The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). We are performing the motet as Tallis likely would have intended, with singers standing in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir on the far left, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed, with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work.
     “Tallis is dead and music dies,” lamented William Byrd (1540–1623), his pupil and later colleague. Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572. Though he was not required to write in as many styles as Tallis, since the political and religious situation in England had settled somewhat by Byrd’s tenure, he was an impressive successor to his teacher. Byrd’s musical challenges were more personal—he spent his life composing for a Protestant church as a devout Catholic. The new Protestant service required a compositional style that clearly communicated the meaning of the text to the congregation, which amounted to a primarily chordal texture with English language text. The Catholic tradition still favored Latin texts and the music was more elaborate in style. Byrd’s music was a compromise and sat right in the middle—simpler than contemporary Catholic music and more complex than his Protestant colleagues’ compositions. Despite this apparent compromise, many believe that his music often reflects his desire for the return of Catholicism in veiled terms, particularly in Tristitia et anxietas.
     Unfortunately, we know little about Scotland’s greatest Renaissance composer, Robert Carver (1485–1570). Carver was a Scottish Canon regular—an ordained priest who lives in a community with other canons—who spent much of his life at Scone Abbey. They followed a set of rules that emphasized a life lived together under the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. By examining examples of Carver’s signature found in a rediscovered charter book for the abbey, we know he was also the scribe for the Carver Choirbook, which contains all of his surviving compositions including the 19-part motet O bone Jesu. Some historians believe it was written for James IV, who atoned constantly over the course of his life for trying to overthrow his father, James III (who eventually was murdered by a group of rebels). James IV never got over his guilt for being involved and every year during Lent wore an iron chain garment around his waist, next to the skin, adding weight every each year. Some think James IV commissioned O bone Jesu as part of that atonement. Opening delicately with only two voices, Carver expands to incorporate the entire 19-voice choir in the span of only 30 seconds. This opening which evokes images of a sunrise, is one of the most beautiful moments in the repertoire.
     Italian composer Andrea Gabrieli (1532–1585) was the first internationally renowned member of the Venetian School of composers. In 1566, Gabrieli was chosen for the post of organist at St. Mark's Basilica, one of the most prestigious musical posts in northern Italy. Working in the unique acoustic space of St. Mark's, he was able to develop his unique, grand ceremonial style, which was enormously influential in the development of polychoral style. Gabrieli’s setting of the Magnificat for triple choir represents only the beginning of the Venetian exploration of the polychoral style.
     The polychoral style eventually made its way to Spain, influencing composers such as Alonso Lobo (1555–1617), though Lobo never used more than two choirs. (The Gabrielis often wrote for as many choirs as there were choir lofts at St. Mark’s). Lobo was influential far beyond Spain and was considered to be one of the finest Spanish composers, second to Tomás Luis de Victoria.
     Lobo’s best known work, Versa est in luctum, was written for the funeral of Philip II in 1598 at Toledo Cathedral. While the six-part motet is set to text associated with a Requiem Mass, he did not write a complete setting. The stunning motet, filled with beautiful, cascading lines, captures the despair of the text and showcases why Victoria considered Lobo to be an equal.
    We want to thank everyone for supporting us through the years. It has been such a privilege to explore the depths of this gorgeous music over 15 years of performance and recording. This journey has been more fulfilling than we could have imagined, and we could never have embarked on it without you.

-Markdavin Obenza

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Seattle's Periodic Period Messiah

St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle
Photo: Marissa Meyer
It is possible that the Messiah tradition at St. Mark’s Cathedral would have begun earlier had Peter Hallock, the music director from 1951 to 1991, not viewed Handel oratorios as “monstrously boring.” It took a hearing of Colin Davis’s 1966 recording of the work to change his mind. The recording, which Hallock says was the first time he had heard Handel performed in a way that made any sense, inspired the first performance of Messiah at St. Mark’s Cathedral in 1968 with members of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, using modern instruments. Seattle's first historically informed performances of the work using period instruments were held December 12-14, 1985. This ‘new’ approach to the performance was a hit—concerts sold out easily and music critics loved them, ushering in a new standard of historic performance practice of the masterpiece in Seattle. Upon Hallock’s departure from the cathedral in 1991, J. Melvin Butler and Doug Fullington took on the tradition. During the next decade, the novelty of Seattle’s first period Messiah wore off, normalizing revenues while production expenses grew—it costs a pretty penny flying in and accommodating the latest hot soloist! In 2002, Cathedral Associates canceled the Messiah tradition because costs had stretched beyond available resources.

Peter Hallock, 2009
[There have been several attempts to restart the tradition. The Tudor Choir and Seattle Baroque Orchestra joined forces and presented the work at St. Mark’s Cathedral in 2006, and 2007 and 2009 at Town Hall.]

Cathedral Associates’s decision to cancel the Messiah tradition was justifiable. The production cost about $70,000 annually ($100,000 in today’s dollars), mostly in musician fees—the orchestra and choir are all professional musicians, as are the soloists who were imported from all over the world. After the third year in a row losing about $17,000, they threw in the towel. The market had also become saturated with Messiahs—audiences could go to Benaroya or attend any number of sing-alongs to get their fix.

BIG MESSIAHS

Handel wrote Messiah originally for modest vocal and instrumental forces. In the years after his death, particularly during the Victorian era, there was a phase when Messiah was performed by larger and larger ensembles as if competing to see just how big a chorus and orchestra could be crammed onto one stage. Mozart even got in on the action with his own arrangement, which was not to everyone’s taste. One critic said that it “resembles elegant stucco work upon an old marble temple… easily… chipped off again by the weather.” The trend in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been toward performing Messiah with intimate, more modest instrumentation.

Ironically in Seattle—one of the early music centers in the Pacific Northwest—the intimate version is in scarce supply. Larger productions by well-established musical organizations like the Seattle Symphony dominate the scene, along with the ever-growing number of sing-alongs that accompany them. While we applaud their efforts for keeping Messiah in the classical mainstream, Handel originally conceived the work for much smaller instrumental and choral forces.

MESSIAH REBOOT

Our Messiah ‘Reboot,’ performed by 18 players on baroque period instruments and 16 singers, is more what Handel had in mind. One may worry about the smaller ensemble lacking the punch of a larger orchestra and choir. On the contrary, the dynamic range of the work is much easier to hear with fewer musicians, making for a more exciting, larger-than-life performance. The increased clarity allows the audience to hear the athleticism in each musical line that larger productions lack. The sound of baroque instruments is also unique. Compared to their modern counterparts, they tend to be quieter and brighter and are well-suited to the fast-moving demands of the ornate oratorio. By hiring a professional choir of only 16 singers instead of a tour de force symphonic chorus, you are able to hear the small details in the choral writing that make Messiah an intricate baroque masterpiece.

We believe we have found a financially sustainable way to present a unique, intimate Messiah once again in Seattle. Although Messiah is often performed in December, an April performance (the weekend after Easter) avoids the threat of snow, keeping revenue up. We are fortunate to employ the excellent local singers right here in the Pacific Northwest. By hiring locally, we save money on the flight and hotel costs we would need to pay for out-of-state soloists. The soloists (nine total) are selected from the choir, allowing us the artistic freedom to assign solos to precisely the right voice type.

We hope you will enjoy our reboot. We are looking forward to showing you why this Messiah tradition is worth reviving.

MESSIAH PERFORMANCES featuring the Byrd Ensemble and Seattle Baroque Orchestra

Friday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Bastyr University
14500 Juanita Dr NE
Kenmore, WA 98028
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facebook event

Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.
St. Mark's Cathedral
1245 10th Ave E
Seattle, WA 98102
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Links:

DOCTORAL DISSERTATION BY JASON ALLEN ANDERSON, DMA, 2007
Hallelujah! Seattle Baroque and the Tudor Choir recreate musical history for the holidays.
Tudor’s “Messiah” makes a comeback
Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Tudor Choir revive period performances of 'Messiah'

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

CD: Music for the Sforza Court





Pre-order by February 20, 2019


$15


The Duchy of Milan in the late 15th century was a lively place. Ruled by the Sforza family, a particularly artistic and competitive dynasty, the court expanded to include what turned out to be one of the most talented musical chapels in Europe at the time. Under Sforza patronage, singers and composers like Alexander Agricola, Johannes Martini, Loyset Compère, and Josquin des Prez were given freedom to experiment. Together, they composed numerous works and even developed a new style of the mass ordinary called motetti missalles in which  collections of motets which were substituted for regular mass parts - Kyrie, Gloria, etc. The music was often inspired by popular pieces of the day and the subject matter was devotional, honoring the Virgin Mary or some other object that pleased the family. One of these motetti missalles is the centerpiece to our recording, surrounded by other works that were produced in this prolific environment.

TRACKS

COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 1. Introit: Ave virgo gloria
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 2. Loco Gloria: Ave salus infirmorum
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 3. Loco Credo: Ave decus Virginale
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 4. Loco Offertorii: Ave sponsa verbi
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 5. Loco Sanctus: O Maria!
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 6. Ad Elevationem: Adoramus te, Christe
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 7. Loco Agnus: Salve, mater salvatoris
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 8. Loco Deo Gratias: Virginis Mariae laudes
MARTINI Magnificat secundi toni
WEERBEKE Stabat Mater
JOSQUIN Stabat Mater
AGRICOLA Regina coeli laetare
AGRICOLA Nobis Sancti Spiritus
JOSQUIN Qui habitat

BYRD INTERNATIONAL SINGERS, directed by Markdavin Obenza

Soprano
Laura Abbott
Dawn Fosse Cook
Lauren Kastanas
Anastasia Shmytova
Karlie Traversa

Alto
Pamela Chang
Natalie Manning
Anne Roberts
Vera Slasnaya

Tenor
Jacob Buys
Richard Greene
Jim Howeth
Arvind Narayanan
Jason Tong

Bass
Doug Fullington
Connor Hartling
John Lee
Andrew Payne
Patrick Rice




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