Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: New York Polyphony

Feb. 23, Virginia Commonwealth University

New York Polyphony  countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips  has become a leading American ensemble in the daunting realm of high medieval and Renaissance vocal music.

This repertory is daunting not just for the challenge of negotiating intricate and delicately balanced vocalizations, but also in making this music a consistently engaging listening experience.

This may be especially true of English vocal music of the 15th and 16th centuries. More than most continental Europeans, the English sound to have been hesitant to depart from the periods accepted formulas of musical or poetic-expressive styles. Their liturgical music is almost always moderate in tempo and solemnly reverent in tone. Their love songs take about the same andante pace as the church music, and their lyrics usually conform to courtly conventions. Even the racier romances  the ones that, as Williams noted, like to compare intimate body parts with ripe fruit  wrap the euphemism in musical decorousness.

A couple of songs or one Mass or liturgical piece can be sublime. In a full program, though, each piece risks sounding like the ones that precede and follow it. Bliss soon becomes bliss-out.

The escape from this seeming sameness, for New York Polyphony and a number of other younger groups, is to let individual voices contrast with one another, rather than aiming for a smoothly homogenized vocal texture. That approach carries with it the risk of sounding unbalanced or ragged.

Williams, Wilson, Herbert and Phillips prepare their performances with enough care and contrast their voices with enough sensitivity to avoid raggedness; but their voices have such pronounced and different characters that their ensemble is not the vocal equivalent of a string quartet.

They harmonize, literally and figuratively, by reconciling their individual vocal traits, not by sublimating them. They create expressive variety by manipulating dynamics and the colors of their voices. And they connect with the audience through entertaining but pertinent spoken introductions to the music.

In their weekend date at VCU, part of the Rennolds Chamber Concerts series, the foursome sang one masterpiece of Renaissance polyphony, William Byrd’s “Mass for Four Voices,” with relatively exuberant reverence, and sampled a variety of other sacred and secular music heard in England from the 13th through 16th centuries.

The best samples, to my ears, were two quite different works from the 16th century: “Quid petis, o fili,” a pleasantly meandering romance by Richard Pygott, and “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” one of the livelier scripture settings of Thomas Tallis.