By Karen Hauge, KCMetropolis
The first half of New York Polyphony’s concert for the Friends of Chamber Music on Tuesday evening began with Dufay’sConditor alme siderum, which alternates between unison declamation of the plainsong and the close harmonies of Dufay’s own devising. Led by Craig Phillips’s rich, clear bass, the group immediately impressed with their excellent balance, diction, and individualism that allowed interwoven lines to create a resonant whole.
After the opening piece, the remainder of the first half was structured like the Mass Ordinary, with occasional doubling of certain movements to highlight the differences in sacred composition from the late 13th century to the modern era. A reimagining of the traditional Kyrie chant by English composer Andrew Smith began the Mass cycle, and the juxtaposition of the unmeasured chant in the countertenor against the regular rhythm and harmonies of the group demonstrated Smith’s thorough knowledge of sacred part-writing while still incorporating unexpected harmonic shifts that set this work apart from the much earlier music on the program.
The Thomas Tallis Gloria which followed took us on a sharp swerve in the opposite direction of Renaissance and Renaissance-esque music into the consonant world of sixteenth-century tonality. The Tallis Gloria was followed by a Gloria from the Worcester Fragments, a collection of anonymous songs dating from the late 13thand early 14th centuries which featured tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson off-stage intoning the trope “Spiritus procedens.” Round vibrato and emotive delivery gave his voice the resonance of many singers while the trio of countertenor, baritone, and bass responded from the center altar.
Baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert shone in the Tallis Sanctus not only for his mellow, unforced sound but also for his unflagging communication with his cohorts as he engaged with them over the tops of their music books. Geoffrey Williams’s soaring countertenor took on an angelic quality as he intoned Beata Viscera from behind the altar while ringing a hand chime, the total effect being that of a high, invisible voice singing ethereally from the rafters of the beautiful cathedral.
The first half of the program closed with a world premiere of composer Gabriel Jackson’s Ite Missa Est, and proved to be another interesting mix of Renaissance ideals and modern twists. This selection used crunchy chords and changing pulse which conveyed the complexities of the late Renaissance more than anything.
The second half of the program brought a Yuletide spirit to the evening, featuring sacred and secular works concerning the Christmas story or a general wintery spirit. Another Smith piece opened the set, a new take on Veni Emmanuel with dramatic and compelling harmonic shifts on the word “Gaude” (“Rejoice”).Coventry Carol called for countertenor, tenor, and bass singing in simple harmonies, and the even, equal tone achieved across the trio allowed for stunning openness of intervals, and flawless intonation made even more interesting the sudden crunch of dissonance and release to major tonality at the end of each verse.
Two secular carols stood out. The winds whistle cold was full of rich chords and the growth to unison on the line “Jolly hearts!” inspired some jolly smiles as well. A jaunty carol of Holst’s extolled the virtues of good food and drink, and built to a dizzying frenzy until the final triumphant uttering of the titular phrase, “Bring us in good ale!”
The final piece of the evening gave the program its name and the group its last album title. I sing the birth, penned by the Sullivan half of Gilbert-and-, was a joyful and victorious celebration of the Christmas story. An encore of The darkest midnight in December shone a spotlight on the arranging skills of bass Phillips and was a showcase for the tender and passionate abilities of the group.
We need more early music like New York Polyphony, who make their music approachable and understandable to audiences and who perform with flawless skill, touching passion, and a commitment to beauty that lets us experience the divine power of music as it was conceived of long ago.