By Tom Marks, KCMetropolis.com
The Friends of Chamber Music concluded its 2012–13 Early Music Series and concert season on Friday night at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, presenting the British choral ensemble, Stile Antico. The concert, “Treasures of the Renaissance,” was comprised primarily of sacred music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Stile Antico’s vibrant sound and youthful energy injected new life into these old works, refreshing them in the twenty-first century for Kansas City’s appreciative audience members.
The ensemble opened with Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat primi toni. The group’s synchronicity was apparent in this selection. Singing without a conductor, this small choir of twelve voices maintained consistent eye contact, leading each other and maintaining uniformity as an ensemble. Within the Magnificat, the choir delivered the piece’s varying sections with differing, appropriate moods—most noticeably at the dramatic increase in volume and intensity during the concluding “Gloria Patri.”
Speaking after the opening selection, tenor Andrew Griffiths (who spoke on the ensemble’s behalf throughout the concert), said that their program repertoire was “interesting and varied.” I was initially skeptical about the statement, as much of the program consisted of sacred Latin motets composed approximately within a century of one another. Shortly into the concert, however, Stile Antico demonstrated the diversity of their repertoire, thanks in part to their capable voices, interpretative choices, and attention to each individual piece’s text.
After the opening Magnificat, the group performed Ego flos campi by Jacobus Clemens non Papa. The music is set to a text from Song of Songs, in which the narrative voice declaims, “I am a flower of the field and a lily of the valley.” Stile Antico brought out the blooming character of the music, supporting the unfolding lines with a gentle, yet steady tone and tempo. A lively setting of another Song of Songs text by Orlando di Lasso, Veni dilecte mi, followed.
Concluding the concert’s first half was a set of three works by English composers. Again, the ensemble demonstrated their attentiveness to the text, performing Thomas Tallis’s In Pace in a quiet, peaceful manner, and contrasting it with an accented and rousing motet, Vigilate, by William Byrd. The set ended with Woefully arrayed. This piece, set to a meditative, Tudor-era text about Christ’s passion, was commissioned by the ensemble in 2009 and composed by John McCabe. Musically, the piece is rather dissonant and mournful at times, depicting the images described in the piece’s Tudor-era text. The work, though newly composed, fit well in the concert program.
The concert’s second half opened with more motets by English composers. One notable piece was John Sheppard’s The Lord’s Prayer, which, as Griffiths explained, was a vocal transcription of a piece for viol consort. The motet’s final cadence was well-tuned and evoked string-like qualities. Orlando Gibbon’s antiphonal O clap your hands also comprised part of this set. Some of the members were tacit for this selection, reducing the ensemble to two smaller choirs. Generally, the ensemble’s blend suffered when it reduced in size, as individual voices became easier to perceive. Palestrina’s Exultate Deo and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium followed. Exultate—with its quick, polyphonic lines—was buoyant and spirited, and added some needed contrast to the concert’s second half.
A final collection of Song of Songs settings concluded the night. Stile Antico sang these pieces attentively, bringing out the inherent sensuality of the text. The ensemble ended with Hieronymus Praetorius’ setting ofTota pulchra es. The polychoral piece pitted three choirs against each other. The ensemble’s physical arrangement depicted the piece’s playful acoustics. As one choir sang a motive, it was then echoed by the other choirs. The selection was fun, and a great piece on which to end. As in the Gibbons selection, though, blend suffered and individual voices became discernable when the ensemble divided into these smaller choirs.
The audience, who gave Stile Antico a standing ovation, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the concert, as enthusiastic “woos” accompanied the steady applause. The Friends of Chamber Music’s laudable Early Music Series of the 2012–13 season certainly ended on a high note. Kansas City audiences seem to appreciate the organization’s efforts to provide quality music from the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. Fortunately, with the early music lineup the organization has secured for the 2013–14 season, the city can look forward many more great concerts in the coming year.