Byrd Ensemble - II. Summer of Love (2004-2007)
Updated: Nov 20
Other chapters from the history of the Byrd Ensemble:
Flying high from our inaugural concert in 2004, we were determined to keep going. We saw a bright future ahead and it was ready for the taking. With this momentum, we moved full steam ahead.
In the spirit of attracting younger singers, we became a part of the Tudor Choir’s education program for the 2004-2005 season. This gave us access to music, marketing, and guidance from Tudor Choir Artistic Director and dear friend Doug Fullington.
Photo of Tudor Choir 2004-2005. Rebekah Gilmore, David Stutz, Linda Strandberg, Linda Sabee, Gary Cannon, Eleanor Fye, Doug Fullington, Sid Law, Markdavin Obenza, Jennifer Fanning
Our next concerts were not nearly as well attended as our first, and the reality of starting a new group began to sink in. Why didn't all those people see us again? Were we not good? "WERE THEY NOT ENTERTAINED?" It seemed that the people that attended our concert came to support us personally, and not so much for the music itself.
I wonder what motivates people to come to concerts. It has enormous implications on how we approach marketing and audience development. I expect the answer is some mixture between supporting the artists (friends and family) and for music. For the first 10 years of our existence, our attendance was mostly comprised of friends and family—which we are so thankful for—but we wanted people to come for the music. Having an audience filled with people you do not know is a marker of success, that there was something of value in the music itself and how we were singing it.
Imagine, what singers now have the time to put this much effort into singing when it isn’t their main source of income? This was a very special period in our group's history.
We gave a concert in Holy Rosary (West Seattle) fall of 2004 “The Legacy of Chant.” Here is our performance of Victoria's Descendi angelus.
After our Spring concert in 2005, we decided to fly solo and conclude our arrangement with the Tudor Choir as part of their educational program.
Through the years, so many singers have dedicated themselves to this project and let me steer the ship. My gratitude for this special privilege grows with every passing year.
2005 was the summer of love.
One day, Orrin and I strolled into a PCC in the Wedgwood neighborhood in Seattle. It is unbelievable that I just typed that, as Orrin and I were the types to frequent a Red Robin or McDonalds instead. The universe clearly had something else in mind. We entered the store and Sarra Sharif tracked us down. She walked up to us and asked in her signature matter-of-fact tone, "Are you guys in the Renaissance Singers? I would like to audition."
We were, in fact, auditioning a bunch of singers from the University of Washington the following week. The singers had to read Cornysh's Salve Regina, which is an insane audition piece, have a gander if you'd like. We sung it down a whole step and I asked Sarra to sing the Soprano part, which went to high Ab! Sarra was an alto, so those high notes were thicc! She nailed the audition. Sarra is foundational to the sound of the Byrd Ensemble. She is a true mean (soprano 2) and sings at the highest level. Doug Fullington at a Tudor Choir concert called Sarra "the perfect singer." She does have it all—tone, intonation, range, and is the cleanest singer I know. Sarra is married to tenor Orrin Doyle.
We found our first core singer.
A few weeks later, I attended the Tallis Scholars Summer School in Seattle. On the first day, a few Tudor Choir singers and I walked into a room for a “meet and greet.” I saw Margaret Prezbindowski (to be Obenza!) reading a book by herself at a table. Margaret was shy—a bit intimidated to see performers she had seen in concert walk into the room so she kept to herself. I introduced myself at Evensong (at St. James Cathedral, Seattle) and later that day heard her sing Tallis’s If ye love me. (Yes, ye does love you). This was a sound that I had never heard before—bright, pingy, and even throughout her range. For me, Margaret’s voice is on the top shelf next to legendary Sopranos Tessa Bonner and Deborah Roberts. Her delivery is remarkably human, she sounds like she’s speaking on pitch. I flirted, asked her to sing for the Renaissance Singers and she said yes! We soon began dating.
We found our second core singer.
It’s worth noting that in our 20s, we had the passion, interest, and most importantly capacity, to pursue what would become the most fulfilling musical venture of our lives. The pay was crap. We just evenly divided ticket sales at the end of concerts which nearly paid for our post-concert dinner and drinks. This was the definition of a passion project and we were hungry for a level of musical excellence that only existed in our minds. We were idealistic. We took voice lessons. We wanted to get better. Margaret asked me to help improve her intonation and so we spent countless hours in the evening in a practice room at Seattle University (some of them teary out of frustration) working on tuning. (At this time, I worked as a choral assistant under Joy Sherman “Doc” for a year). Imagine, what singers now have the time to put this much effort into singing when it isn’t their main source of income? This was a very special period in our group's history.
Through the years, so many singers have dedicated themselves to this project and let steer the ship. My gratitude for this special privilege grows with every passing year.
The Renaissance Singers 2006: Willimark Obenza, Jessica Martin, Margaret Prezbindowski, Markdavin Obenza, Sarra Sharif, Teresa Clark, Maria Mannisto, Orrin Doyle, Thomas Segen. Taken at the University of Washington.
Our 2006 Fall concert was at First Lutheran, the only record of which lies in my noodle, and now here on this blog.
In March of 2007, we auditioned alto Joshua Haberman.
We met Josh briefly at the Tallis Scholars Summer School in 2005 in Seattle. Josh was a very eager person. I say this with only fondness for his enthusiasm—or Joshthusiasm! I sang with Josh briefly in the Compline Choir, but wasn't sure what I thought about his singing. You can tell from my initial email to him dated March 16, 2007:
Josh, The Renaissance Singers are currently looking for an Alto that would be willing to sing for our upcoming spring concert on Saturday, April 21 at 8pm and Sunday, April 22 at 3pm. Rehearsals are Tuesdays from 6:30-8:30pm at Trinity Episcopal Church, Downtown Seattle and one dress Friday evening, April 19th from 8-10pm. The pay is TBA, but we are trying for $200 for both performances (we just got turned non-profit and are getting our finances in order). We were wondering if you would be willing to audition for us. We are looking for someone that can sing low Alto parts (break into my chest voice often), and has solid intonation. We'd like to set up an audition ASAP if you are interested. Thanks, Mark
I have no good excuse for my email etiquette here—what about "I was young and stupid?" No "Hi" or "Dear" Josh, it's so dry, I can't promise a set fee, and my passive aggressive dig at his intonation—it's all pretty ugly. Rest assured, my email manners are much better now.
Josh replied right away, sent me a clip of his singing, and attended a rehearsal on April 3. I remember his audition clearly. He sang Isaac's Virgo prudentissima with me. Just some good old fashioned mind games for the auditionee to sing a part with the director. It is the best way to sense what one would be like as a singing partner. Josh, of course, sang the part beautifully. A rich countertenor sound in the low alto range was exactly what the Renaissance Singers needed to cover the odd high tenor/low alto parts that don't fit neatly into a proper tenor or alto part.
We found our third core singer.
The Renaissance Singers 2007 at the Church of the Ascension in Magnolia, Seattle. Margaret Obenza, Sarra Sharif, Teresa Clark, Josh Haberman, Markdavin Obenza, Orrin Doyle, Gary Cannon, Willimark Obenza, Brent, Thomas Segen, Jonathan Silvia
We were on a roll. On July 2007, we received our 501c3 nonprofit determination letter, and were slowly building our brand and audience. We also recorded our first album, Masterpieces of the Renaissance (2007).
Here's Tallis's Sancte Deus from Masterpieces of the Renaissance (2007).
With the new singers, Sarra, Margaret, and Josh, we were establishing the core sound of the group. I could hear an ever-expanding palette of overtones overtake the spaces we sang in—it was thrilling. We sounded older, bigger, more respectable. Though, it came with some growing self doubt about my own singing.
At this time, I was singing alto from within the line. I had a solid background in professional ensemble singing and felt that my best contributions was as a singer from within the group. However, I noticed something about the voices of the new recruits: their voices did not get tired.
All voices, of course, can eventually get tired. Unfortunately, I could only endure one hour of singing before my voice would fatigue as an alto/countertenor singing in falsetto. I sang through this difficulty and trained my mechanism to endure full programs of loud singing, but my endurance did not significantly improve. At the end of concerts, I was hoarse, while the others still sounded as beautiful as they began. It would be a few more years until I would formally exit the line and direct, but in 2007, I started questioning my usefulness as a singer.
Other chapters from the history of the Byrd Ensemble: