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Updated Friday, November 23, 2012 at 07:01 AM

Byrd Ensemble opens holidays with 'What Sweeter Music' at Trinity Parish Church

By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times

If you're one of those for whom Thanksgiving is the true kickoff of the holiday season, you might find that Seattle's Byrd Ensemble — a chamber vocal group specializing in Renaissance polyphony (music having two or more voices or parts) — is a kindred spirit.

Founded in 2003 and formerly known as the Renaissance Singers, the Byrd Ensemble has been, for years, one of the first among regional performing-arts organizations to put its stamp on this merry time of year.

This weekend, the Byrd Ensemble (named for William Byrd, who composed in the 16th and 17th centuries) presents "What Sweeter Music," featuring — among other things — its own take on the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols held every Christmas Eve in the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, England.

Joined by local chamber ensemble Parnassus Project and actor Nurmi Husa, the Ensemble's concerts Saturday and Sunday at Trinity Parish Church will offer music by 19th- and 20th-century British composers John Rutter, Ralph Vaughan Williams, David Willcocks and Peter Warlock.

"We've done this concert every Thanksgiving weekend since 2009," says Ensemble co-founder and music director Markdavin Obenza. "We knew it was good timing. People are with their families and are just beginning to think about buying gifts."

Obenza says the program has a traditional English Christmas theme using popular carols and Christmas pieces.

"A lot of that music is from the Festival of Lessons and Carols. We put a twist on the format, replacing the customary biblical readings with Christmas stories and poetry. Much of what we have is our own arrangements."

The bill includes Willcocks' take on "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," Warlock's Benedicamus Domino (Let us bless the Lord) and Rutter's "I Wonder as I Wander."

The Parnassus Project will handle Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves" as an instrumental.

Husa, who appeared in the feature film "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" and is a stage actor familiar to Portland and Vancouver, Wash., audiences, will perform the readings.

"He looks like Father Christmas," says Obenza.

Collaboration with other artists comes naturally to the Byrd Ensemble.

"Part of our philosophy is incorporating different artistic elements into our programs," Obenza says. "Standing up there singing by ourselves may not be as interesting to watch as doing a program with an aerialist, as we did last year."

The Byrd Ensemble, typically 10 to 12 singers depending on the concert, was born from shared, formative experiences in vocal music.

"The founding members met in Northwest Boychoir," says Obenza. "Some of the women in the Ensemble used to be in Northwest Girlchoir. A few of us were in the Compline Choir at St. Mark's, and some in the Tudor Choir. We ended up together."

Obenza, who received his master's degree in music theory from the University of Washington, has overseen the Byrd Ensemble's evolution into a critically acclaimed organization with its own record label and an upcoming tour of the East Coast.

Two more concerts remain on the group's current schedule: "Mystic Minimalism" (Feb. 9), "uniting classical music and contemplative spirituality," and "Draw On Sweet Night" (April 6), a program of 16th- and 17th-century madrigals.

"It's a pretty varied season," says Obenza.

Tom Keogh:


The Byrd Ensemble: 'What Sweeter Music'

7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, at Trinity Parish Church, 609 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $10-$20, few seats remain (206-397-3627 or

Seattle vocal group the Byrd Ensemble presents two performances of "What Sweeter Music" this weekend.


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