Geoffrey Williams (countertenor), Craig Phillips (bass), Christopher Dylan
Herbert (baritone) and Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor) who make up New
(Photo credit: Chris Owyoung)
On January 26, singing to a packed audience at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin near Times Square, New York Polyphony, the all-male quartet founded in 2006, presented a program of Christian sacred music that ranged from the fifteenth century to the present day.
The largest pieces, three masses, were composed by three major late medieval and early modern English composers, John Plummer (1410-1484) and the two much better known Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and his student and younger colleague William Byrd (1540-1623). In addition, New York Polyphony presented three short pieces by contemporary composers, closely tied in subject and purpose to the much earlier masses.
New York Polyphony's performance of all these works was entirely marvelous.
Each of the quartet's singers is a superb musician. Each can sing with unerring and unfussy precision; each can also – apparently effortlessly – extend and shape the range of his voice so as to explore the full range of even the most formal score's possible textures and tones.
Beyond their individual musical strengths, Geoffrey Williams (countertenor), Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor), Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone) and Craig Phillips (bass) exemplify the highest standards of effective artistic collaboration. They are keenly attentive to each other’s pacing, inflection and intention. They also clearly and irrepressibly enjoy the music, and their tremendous shared affection for the material constitutes a welcoming invitation to the audience to participate in the music's meaning and beauty.
The tone of the concert – the singers' graceful authority and the audience's happy appreciation – was firmly established by the time the first movement of the evening's opening piece was over.
Byrd's 1592 Mass is traditional in form, yet deeply personal in tone. New York Polyphony translated Byrd's alliance of the traditional and the personal into a well-spring of creative energy.
The opening Kyrie was a request for God's mercy spoken in a voice of profound faith, a voice of someone accustomed to conversation with God. The Gloria was sensuous, quite literally a praising of God so heartfelt as to constitute a physical representation of faith. In the Credo portion of the Mass, the declaration of Christ's crucifixion was a lament of great pain. The following clause of the Creed, the announcement of Christ's resurrection, was itself a triumph of unexpected tones and harmonies. The closing Agnus Dei embodied both the intimacy of personal experience and the expansiveness of centuries of history and theology.
Throughout the Byrd – and the rest of the evening – New York Polyphony's singing was characterized by a close conjoining of intellect and emotion: their musical sensibility is equally informed by fierce intelligence and sensuous expressivity.
The second piece of the evening was Richard Rodney Bennett's A Colloquy with God written for New York Polyphony just weeks before Bennett's death on Christmas Eve, 2012. Bennett took as his text “A Colloquy with God” by Sir Richard Browne (1605-1682), a poem taken from his 1635 Religio Medici, about the clear-eyed calm with which a man of faith contemplates the death which will come in “that hour, when I shall never/Sleep again, but wake forever!” Bennett's quintessentially English music, Romantic in feel but disciplined and unsentimental, provided a perfect vehicle for both Browne's poetry and the New York Polyphony singers' capacity to explore the confrontation with death through musical sound.
John Plummer's Missa sine nomine is an astonishing work, inventive and unrestrained. New York Polyphony's reading made listeners feel like the very first witnesses to Plummer's imagination and passion, to his own desire to experiment with music as a way to convey faith. Wilson, Herbert and Phillips sang to and with each other with brisk and intricate technical dazzle. The two plainsong movements, Alma redemptoris mater and Beata viscera, sung by countertenor Williams from “off-stage” were ethereally and hauntingly beautiful.
Although the second half of the program consisted of three pieces, New York Polyphony sang them as a virtually seamless whole. The well-known Tallis Mass for Four Voices, a work of profound and grace-filled elegance, constituted the main core of the second half. But Tallis' Mass lacks an opening Kyrie, so New York Polyphony put the recently composed Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor Deus by composer Andrew Smith, with whom they have collaborated in the past, before the Tallis and then performed the two without any break between them. Smith's expansive Kyrie, bringing a contemporary sensibility to a centuries-old Anglican musical vocabulary, served as a perfect entrance into a superb performance of Tallis' Mass.
The program concluded with the recently composed Ite missa est by Gordon Jackson. The complete, brief text – “Ite missa est, Deo gratias” (“The mass is ended. Thanks be to God”) – marks the traditional end to a mass. Here, Jackson's work served to conclude a concert that included not one mass but three. Steeped in the Anglican liturgical and musical tradition, especially devoted to Byrd and Tallis, influenced as well by American 1970’s soul and R&B and mid-twentieth century music of Bermuda, where he was born, Jackson has written a mass dismissal that is an exuberant delight. New York Polyphony performed Jackson's mass dismissal with a spirit of unalloyed pleasure.
What a lovely way to end a remarkable evening and to accurately declare the continued strength of this English music in the twenty-first century!
New York Polyphony - Tallis & Byrd: Masses for Uncertain Times (January 26, 2013)
Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
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