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New York Polyphony: Palestrina’s “Marcellus Mass”

Inspiring and brilliantly performed sacred a cappella music, an Italian 16th century masterpiece and a contemporary world premiere.

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New York Polyphony (Photo credit: Chris Owyoung)

New York Polyphony (Photo credit: Chris Owyoung)

[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic[/avatar]New York Polyphony, the superb four-man chamber vocal group – Geoffrey Williams/countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson/tenor, Christopher Dylan Herbert/baritone and Craig Phillips/bass-baritone – is in the middle of their celebratory tenth season. Their recent concert, part of Miller Theatre’s stellar Early Music series and presented in the American gothic grandeur of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin off Times Square was particularly nice for all involved: St. Mary’s was New York Polyphony’s original “home” and this concert marked the group’s seventh appearance with the Miller Theatre series. The concert, appropriately, consisted of a great masterwork of the Italian Counter-Reformation – early music was New York Polyphony’s first staple – and a newly commissioned work

The evening began with Palestrina’s barely five-minute-long Sicut cervus, a lovely opener. In its combined decorous formality and sensuous flow, it’s a beautiful piece: spiritual yearning is depicted as something ravishing, and, carried by Polyphony’s voices, it was indeed nearly liquid in sound. Mssrs Palestrina, Williams, Wilson, Herbert and Phillips created a sound that perfectly evoked the psalmist’s thirst for the refreshment of God’s clear, cool waters.

The second work of the evening was the world premiere of Ivan Moody’s Vespers Sequence. In careful, clear program notes, Moody described his goals in his compositions in general and in this new Vespers Sequence in particular: he seeks to “bring the concepts and principles underlying Orthodox spirituality … into dialogue with modernity” … in the “creation of a specifically Orthodox para-liturgical repertoire that brings together liturgy and concert.” Moody collaborated closely with New York Polyphony in conceiving and then finalizing this work; although the sacred texts and many of the originating aesthetic impulses of the work are ancient, the overall feel, in this premiere performance, was of something vital and contemporary.

The work consists of eight sections, of which the first, Anoixantaria, was the longest. The core features of the whole work were well established within the first few minutes: without any cliché from what is almost a current fad for Orthodox monastic chant, the basic familiar components of ancient eastern Orthodox styles from Russian, Greek and Serbian traditions were indeed successfully combined with a modern sensibility. Contrasts between the steadily maintained tonal base and constantly shifting melodic developments reveal individual human responses to immutable divine truths; repetitions after plays and dances of sound enhance texts’ meanings by enriching them at each new harmonic pass. The first section and the deeply plaintive third, O Lord, I have cried unto Thee, adhered most closely to Moody’s Orthodox inspirations, and were among the most successful sections of the whole piece.

The other most effective and moving sections of the piece were those in which counter-tenor Williams was featured: his supple, spacious and flexible voice – presenting itself throughout the text both intentionally and unintentionally as a kind of universal human soul: praying, affirming, imploring, questioning and praising – was consistently beautiful.

Overall, the piece was wonderful; a few passages felt lengthy and might have been tightened and edited. Nonetheless, particular moments of internal musical coherence were rewarding: the gorgeous closing final movement, Rejoice, Virgin Theotokos, evoked the ideas of the fourth movement, Theotokion, making music the handmaid of theology.

In addition to being a stunningly prolific composer and a conductor, Ivan Moody is an ordained priest: Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since 2012, he is vicar to the Lisbon parishes of the Diocese of Spain and Portugal. He is also a musicologist, currently Chairman of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music based in Finland and a researcher at the Centro de Estudos de Sociologia e Estetica Musical at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. In several public interviews, Moody has said, “Music is one of the ways by which God can call us.” The strength of Moody’s Vespers Sequence lay in its capacity to both inspire worship in the faithful and gratitude for beauty in the secular humanist. Moody was in the audience to receive the enthusiastic applause of both the singers and the audience.

The major work of the second half of the program was Palestrina’s Marcellus Mass. This remarkable work does indeed serve its purpose as few works of its era did: inventive, daring and gorgeous music simultaneously stands on its own as praise of God’s glory and illuminates each aspect of the liturgical text it supports. For this work, New York Polyphony was joined by colleagues Timothy Keeler/countertenor, Andrew Fuchs/tenor and Jonathon Woody/bass-baritone; the seven men singing together achieved the same quality of sound that characterizes New York Polyphony itself. Theirs is not a blend, but an organic interconnectedness of individual voices, each equally attentive both to the others and to the constantly shape-changing whole.

From the opening Kyrie on, the singers established the primacy of that particular marriage of richness and pellucidity which is the special gift of this Marcellus Mass. The Gloria exemplified the text’s combination of intellectual praise and sensuous connection to the divine. The whole Credo section managed to balance the intentions of prayer and narrative: “Et expecto resurrectionem” was especially victorious, a declaration of faith-filled certainty. The suffused radiance of the Sanctus turned gentleness into a prism.

The applause after the Palestrina was so intense that New York Polyphony decided on an encore: they sang a setting of the traditional Depression era folk hymn I wonder as I wander arranged by Geoffrey Williams; it couldn’t have been more delicate and sweet.

It was a wonderful evening.

It was thought-provoking, too. Immediately after the intermission and before the Palestrina, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert addressed the audience. He noted that the last time New York Polyphony performed at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, in November 2015, the terror attack on the Bataclan concert-hall in Paris had just taken place; now, Herbert said, we seem to be finding ourselves in “no less uncertain times.” He asked, What does it mean to be artists in times like these and to make the kind of music that New York Polyphony does? First, he said, concerts serve as models for people coming together to create concord and unity. Second, he said, “We bring to light and hold up” the great monuments of civilization … such as this Palestrina mass. The audience applauded.

The creative arts give us perspective and sanity; they nurture our capacity to seek, find and preserve the means by which we can better understand ourselves. No matter what the specific medium, material, occasion or subject of any particular creative arts event – and in this case, it was Palestrina’s and Moody’s liturgical and para-liturgical music – creativity and art make us whole and strong.

New York Polyphony: Palestrina’s Marcellus Mass (January 21, 2017)

Miller Theatre at Columbia University School of the Arts Early Music Series

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 West 46th Street in Manhattan

Running time: two hours with one intermission

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