By Sarah Tyrrell, KCMetropolis
The performance by four-man ensemble New York Polyphony reflected The Friends of Chamber Music’s continued efforts to nurture early music and allowed a diverse Kansas City audience to revel in an all-Renaissance program.
New York Polyphony is putting a fresh face on a distant art form, and they do it with a certain intellect that early music connoisseurs (plenty of which reside in Kansas City) appreciate. They are a striking ensemble, youthful and elegant, and ten years in, they are up six albums and two Grammy nominations.
The ensemble is hailed as always perfectly in tune and capable of an ideal blend. Saturday night’s performance confirmed that these critical standards are indeed upheld. Neither intricate counterpoint nor a demanding program weakened intonation or rhythmic accuracy; both remained remarkably stable.
The Friends of Chamber Music’s audience was attentive for the duration, aware that active listening is required to walk away with the full impact of this purposeful music. The music itself came to be through a resolute focus and specific desire, much of it created in an era governed by compositional standards reflective of Counter-Reformation ideology. But who says functional church music has to be perfunctory? It can—and NYP proved it—be indulgent, engaging, and emotional.
New York Polyphony built a program anchored in but not exclusive to the Spanish Renaissance. Victoria’sMissa O quam gloriosum was offered in its entirety alongside smaller gems to break up the continuity of that Kyrie-to-Agnus arc. The second half targeted one composer, Francisco de Peñalosa; two of his threeLamentations, only recently discovered, represented a prior generation and different style.
The ensemble, like these Renaissance-age composers, took advantage of the tools at its disposal to deliver on message and mood, thus satisfying Humanistic preoccupation: words were to remain clear so to preserve the point of this music, which was to offer praise to God. In the Guerrero Regina caeli, texture contrasts called for a full-voiced exuberance on the word “resurrexit,” and NYP demonstrated a proficiency in relaying meaning beyond words and notes on the page.
To follow was Victoria’s motet Gaudent in caelis, which highlighted countertenor Geoffrey Williams’ vivid tone and superb control, even when exposed across the top of the polyphonic fabric. Creating a necessary polarity against the soprano line was bass Craig Phillips, a steady presence and warm color to anchor homophonic passages, so that the four could focus on achieving that signature blend. I appreciated how the singers leaned just enough into the unexpected dissonances peppering Victoria’s vertical sonorities.
The second Guerrero piece was Quae est ista/Surge propera. NYP situated this as a respite from the Victoria mass (all five Ordinary prayers would not follow in back-to-back order during a mass service anyway). At “surge propera, amica mea” (“rise up my love”), the voice pairing developed entirely new partnerships between timbres and in particular allowed baritone Christopher Herbert to prove his agility in dealing with continuous melodic lines that offer few cadential pauses.
It’s not precisely clear how Palestrina, a towering figure of Counter-Reformation Italy, figured into a program titled “The Reign and Radiance of Spain.” The program notes shed little light on the inclusion, except to note that Spanish composer Victoria crossed paths with Palestrina, his elder, while working for a time in Rome. In any case, who can deny that a little Palestrina goes a long way—and who wouldn’t take the chance to conduct a compare/contrast between two different composers’ approaches to the same text? Palestrina’s reputation was that of pious Catholic, wedded to rule and regulation, while Victoria’s style is described as darker, more mysterious. New York Polyphony provided the chance to consider which interpretative measures each took to bring about a text’s meaning and intent.
Victoria’s mass, published in 1583 and dedicated to King Philip II of Spain, began with the typical “Kyrie,” a short text elongated by drawing out single syllables via a series of notes. This opening prayer was rendered slowly, and NYP lingered and languished through extended melismas. The “Gloria” was weighted toward lower voice parts, all while Williams’ countertenor floated sensitively over their robust counterpoint. The middle lines (“Domine Deus, Rex caelestis”) meant a balanced merger of bass (Phillips) and baritone, Christopher Herbert. An admitted sucker for the final lines of this prayer, “cum Sancto Spiritu,” I thought the accumulation into and through these words was most satisfying.
The “Credo” spells out a belief system through the first-person prompt “I believe” and surveys Christ’s story from birth to death to re-birth. For this soprano/historian/Catholic, the prayer never gets old, particularly in its musical manifestation and with the kind of intentional clarity that NYP managed for every syllable. In particular, the “Et in carnatus est” was rendered in a sublime homophony, crafting a still and reverent declamation that seemed to appropriately revel in the mystery of it all. The “Sanctus” featured nuanced chromaticism, and NYP emphasized the rich dissonance. The wave of descending melodies at “Pleni sunt caeli” led to points of imitation to start the “Benedictus,” where stark, independent lines shimmered one by one in their independence. The audience was clearly moved by the austerity and clarity of tone used for this moment, then were transferred abruptly back to the joy of a final “Hosanna.” The attention to form on the “Agnus dei,” tripartite like the “Kyrie,” was telling: each singer delivered the first syllable of the third “Agnus” with an almost glottal attack, delineating that final recurrence, which is an appeal for peace.
The second half was dedicated to two complete Lamentations composed by Peñalosa. Three generations before Victoria, and two before Palestrina, Peñalosa (1470–1528) was likely influenced by earlier trends defined more by Franco-Flemish composers’ dominance in western Europe. The Lamentations are masterful, sorrowful pieces from which I craved more depth. The countertenor role was diminished here, which opened opportunity for heavier voice types to assert shadowy, contrasting timbres. What was missing was more of a rattling and rumbling in the lower parts, which would have driven home the melancholy of these potent texts. Still, NYP managed well a plaintive delivery of the mournful words. There were sublime moments, like when tenor, baritone, and bass came in full force in Lamentation One (“Beth”) and at “nec invenit”
(“Ghimel”). Lamentation Two let the audience in on Steven Wilson’s stunning tenor, then left all four singers so very exposed at the end. After such a challenging evening, I did catch a momentary wobble on intonation, but with a quick recovery, NYP has my appreciation for breathing light and life into these obscure pieces.
New York Polyphony is a fruitful collaboration and each singer carries his weight toward remarkable stamina and cohesion. Their decade-long affiliation has built the artistic bonds that make possible such unity and consistency, particularly in dealing with polyphonic lines that can easily unravel, or slip into uninspired execution of a sequence of pitches. Even though I could argue for more distinct consonants throughout, these consummate musicians kept each piece buoyant with breath support and momentum and a line-by-line attentiveness.