by Maggie Stapleton

The Byrd Ensemble (yes, as in William Byrd, 1540-1623) may not be the first ensemble in Seattle that you’d associate with new music, but on February 1, 2014 this 12-voice choir performed a program of (almost) all 20th and 21st century music.

Byrd Ensemble Artistic Director Markdavin Obenza offered me some of his thoughts behind this old-meets-new juxtaposition. “This particular program aimed to highlight similarities between modern vocal music and Renaissance music – a strong foundation in tonality and melody, and religious text. I thought a program centered around music by Arvo Part, Peter Hallock, Herbert Howells, and Renaissance composer Robert White would best do the job.”

Obenza also feels that new music seems to be easy to find, though rarely performed.   So, to round out the program, the Byrd Ensemble held a composition contest to draw upon composers of today.  Markdavin says, “To be honest, the idea was an experiment to see if it might get more people to the program, and, generally attracting a non early music demographic to our work.” The award for the contest was an audio and video recording of the piece (a real treat, considering Markdavin is also the co-founder of a tremendous record label, Scribe Records).  The response was better than expected, with 13 submissions and works by Erica Row, Gary James, Jeffrey Junkinsmith, and Markdavin Obenza himself were selected for performance on this program:

With many professional ensembles, programming new music can be a nerve-wracking territory with fear of poor audience attendance – many loyal followers of the Byrd Ensemble are most attracted to music of the Renaissance.  Was the risk of going outside the box worth it for them?  “More than I thought. Towards the end of the concert while I was acknowledging the composers, I noticed some louder clapping and mild cheering at the mention of doing a program entirely of new music by local composers. There’s some great music being written and I’d love to encourage them to keep writing, and I hope Byrd Ensemble’s willingness to perform new music does just that. We definitely plan to keep our modern/new music program in our rotation”

Cheers to you, Byrd Ensemble!

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