Is the most powerful art made in times of the most adversity? The early-music vocal group Chantry made a strong case for that idea Saturday night in an evening of liturgical music by Renaissance composer William Byrd (a staunch Catholic in militantly Protestant England) that was extraordinarily expressive and even exuberant — despite being written at a time when merely owning papist music was enough to land you in jail.
Chantry music director David Taylor has been carving adventurous paths for the group for the past decade, and in this performance he combined music from Byrd’s “Gradualia Propers for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul” and his “Mass for Five Voices.” Under rather tense circumstances, Byrd wrote the works at the turn of the 17th century for clandestine Catholic services; having left the court of Queen Elizabeth I, where he was famed for his colorful, secular madrigals, he was isolated in the countryside, subject to fines for his religious beliefs and to repeated searches of his house for incriminating materials.
But to judge by Chantry’s performance, the repressive atmosphere may have helped produce some of Byrd’s most intense and personal music. There is nothing distant or High Church about these performances; Taylor pulled robust, characterful readings out of his singers. If the effect was sometimes more athletic than atmospheric, it also brought edge-of-seat vitality to the music. Chantry navigated Byrd’s intricate counterpoint with precision, and though the acoustics of the venue (St. Mary Mother of God Church on Fifth Street NW) sometimes muddied the details, this was an evening of exceptionally interesting and moving music.
If you missed it, there’s a second chance: Chantry will repeat the program at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria.
Brookes is a freelance writer.