Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stile Antico Sing the Renaissance and Beyond

“This is our whistle-stop tour of Renaissance polyphony,” Stile Antico tenor Andrew Griffiths nonchalantly explained at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin last night, the concluding concert of this season’s Miller Theatre early music series. He was being somewhat disingenuous: the self-directed twelve-piece choir (six men, six women), arguably the hottest ticket in early music for the last couple of years, are dead-serious when it comes to their repertoire, but otherwise not very much at all. Griffiths seems to be the most gregarious out of possibly several cutups in the group: the subtext was that the ensemble was here to span their favorite era with a “treasures of the Renaissance” program of relatively short works, some showstoppers, some more somber, with a deliciously unexpected highlight of far more recent vintage.

That was John McCabe’s Woefully Arranged, a new commission by the choir based on a William Cornysh setting of a Christ-on-the-cross text probably dating from the early 1500s. Tense to the breaking point with sustained close harmonies versus rhythmic bursts, it was the darkest and most stunning moment of the night. Quasi-operatic outrage gave way at the end to organlike atonalities so richly atmospheric and perfectly executed that it seemed for a moment that the church’s mighty organ had actually taken over. This group’s blend of voices is especially well-anchored by basses Will Dawes, Oliver Hunt and James Arthur (subbing for Matthew O’Donovan, who had nonetheless provided very useful historical notes for the program), a launching pad for the sopranos, notably Helen Ashby – one of this era’s most electrifying voices, who always gets top billing with this group – but also Kate Ashby (her sister) and Rebecca Hickey, who share a finely honed but penetrating, crystalline style.

The rest of the program was characteristically insightful and otherworldly, that is, when it wasn’t festive, as it was when the group romped joyously through Palestrina’s brief Exultate Deo. After the serene, celestial translucence of Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s mid-1500s Ego Flos Campi, they brought the energy up with the far more lively, rhythmic Laetentur Coeli of William Byrd, from about fifty years later. They soared from plaintive suspense to the exalted anthemic melodicism of Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium, then expertly negotiated the labyrinthine counterpoint of another, rather stern Tallis work, Why Fum’th in Fight. The haunting, gothic side of this music was most potently represented via a Spanish piece, Rodrigo de Ceballos’ Hortus Conclusus (Secret Garden), echoed afterward by a smaller version of the ensemble where four members stepped aside, leaving the rest to do a stately take of Sebastian deVivanco’s Veni, Dilecti Mi. The group closed with Pretorius’ famous Tota Pulchra Est, which they very smartly held back from the unbridled exuberance that church choirs typically imbue this piece with: the subtle precision served them especially well when a series of clever echo effects came around at the end. The crowd wouldn’t let them go without an encore, so they obliged with a matter-of-fact take on the hymn Never Weather-Beaten Sail, a track from their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi).

The Miller Theatre holds these concerts at “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. rather than at their usual space uptown since the sonics here make such a good fit for the programming, a mix of choral and chamber concerts featuring international touring acts along with some of the creme de la creme of the Gotham early music scene.

April 22, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stile Antico’s Otherworldly Voices Defy Death in the Heart of Manhattan

Stile Antico’s concert Saturday night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown was a vivid illustration of the kind of entertainment found inside the velvet rope in 1550 – or in the death chamber of a composer’s dreams, in 1474. In the earlier case, Guillaume Dufay couldn’t hold out long enough for a choir to be assembled to sing him the dizzying counterpoint of his Ave Regina Caelorum, which he’d written for the hour when he lay dying: the work made its world premiere at his funeral instead. It was a vivid echo of the night’s theme: the world’s most popular early music choir had brought along a series of Renaissance compositions associated with death, in a program optimistically entitled In Paradisum. As much as Stile Antico’s recordings are otherworldly and gripping, this concert was paradise for the ears. And as tenor Andrew Griffiths had explained over the phone a couple of weeks prior, it was hardly all gloom. In medieval Europe, death may have been a far more constant presence than it is now, yet the music the group had assembled was a celebration, albeit one made in the midst of despair. So good to be alive while the whole world is dying.

Stile Antico are conductorless, like a string quartet: members of the ensemble take turns setting the wheels in motion and directing the occasional change. Such an arrangement no doubt not only explains the group’s striking chemistry and collaborative spirit: it makes those qualities prerequisites. William Byrd’s Retire My Soul was the opening piece, one of his final works. The group creatively assembled themselves to allow the call-and-response of its harmonies to pan around the semicircle, creating a stereo effect similar to his well-known organ compositions. Dufay’s requiem for himself was one of three pieces where the ensemble stashed members of the group out of sight to further enhance the sonic spectrum. The most extraordinary portion of the night was the roughly twenty-three minutes of John Sheppard’s Media Vita (centerpiece and title of the group’s album from last spring), a titanically lush, majestic wash of six-part harmony punctuated by disarming, ominous cadenzas whose subtle dissonances added a wary edge that bordered on the terrifying. Soprano Rebecca Hickey led the ensemble from the center of the stage with a seemingly effortless, potently resonant, crystalline clarity. Sheppard, composer at the Queen’s Chapel, wrote it about a year before died in 1558: even today, its ethereal harmonic sophistication is stunning. In the middle of the piece, Sheppard inserted a somber plainchant, perhaps to give his choir a breather, or to enhance the immensity of the finale. After that marathon, an intermission was the only option.

The rest of the program could have been anticlimatic but it wasn’t, as the group explored more diverse emotional terrain. Josquin des Prez’ O Bone et Dulcissime, written to placate a warlord, had a gentler feel, almost a lullaby in places, basses Oliver Hunt and Will Dawes taking on a more prominent role and exhibiting impressive range alongside the tenors and altos. Alto Carris Jones used a similarly striking upper register introducing the fifteenth century Alonso Lobo’s Versa Est in Luctum, somber but with soaring highs, one of many places where soprano Helen Ashby’s diamond-cutter voice carried the crescendos to new summits. While the spirit of the group seems to be a clearly democratic one, if there’s one star here, it’s her – her two sisters in the group, soprano Kate and alto Emma, would probably not dispute that. The concert wound up with the fugal, funereal In Paradisum, a seventeenth century piece by Heinrich Schutz, and the outright anguish of sixteenth century Orlande de Lassus’ Vide Homo, the words of Christ on the cross, pierced equally by the pain of the nails and his followers’ lack of appreciation for what he endured. After three standing ovations, the group rewarded the sold-out pews with a richly warm, comparatively brief Byrd antiphon from their brand-new advent-and-Christmas cd Puer Natus Est. On one level, it was impossible to watch the concert without feeling somewhat vicarious: after all, when these compositions were current, many of those who heard them live were probably also singing them. On the other hand, it was a stunning reminder of how colossally much musicians of the era did with so little, and especially with so little time.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stile Antico’s Andrew Griffiths Speaks for the Choir

Stile Antico, one of the world’s most popular and exciting choirs, made their New York concert debut less than a year ago at Corpus Christi Church uptown. They’ve topped the Billboard classical charts; toured with Sting; and have been nominated for Grammies twice for their innovative and spirited performances of both rare and iconic sixteenth and seventeenth-century compositions. They return to New York on Saturday, October 16 at 8 PM at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. Andrew Griffiths, tenor in the group, took some time out of his schedule to give us some insight into what promises to be a particularly intriguing concert:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First an obvious question – what is the program you’ll be singing on October 16?

Andrew Griffiths of Stile Antico: It’s called In Paradisum, a program of Renaissance music. All the music is either the last piece that the composers wrote, or a piece that bows out with big questions.

LCC: That’s intense.

AG: Surprisingly, it’s very contrasting. Actually we were all very worried that it was going to be very gloomy. But there’s a lot of upbeat music as well as the intense stuff.

LCC: Your new album, Puer Natus Est (A Child Is Born) is medieval Christmas music. Most of us typically equate Christmas music with a festive, celebratory feel. Is there a festive characteristic to this, or another defining characteristic?

AG: I don’t think that it’s your average seasonal holiday album…Christmas was an important time then as now, as the season approached they certainly pulled out all the stops. This actually has as much to do with Advent as Christmas: you have the waiting for Christmas, the anticipation, and then Christmas itself. There won’t be any music on the disc that will be recognizable as Christmas music to people who don’t know anything from this time period…

LCC: At the October 16 concert, are there specific highlights that the audience should be listening for? Any pieces or passages that are personal favorites of yours?

AG: Personally, and for a lot of us, Media Vita by John Sheppard is actually a huge one. It’s one of the longest pieces from the whole period of Tudor music in England. Sheppard is a composer we’ve done a lot, and something that I feel suits us really, really well. This has amazingly sustained passages in six parts; it’s a bit like running a marathon to perform it.

LCC: I think a lot of people over here don’t realize that choral music in the UK is undergoing a sort of renaissance, with an American Idol/Eurovision style tv show and competing choirs. Is it fair to say that you’re rock stars in the UK?

AG: Not really! I think we’re not terribly well known outside the circle of people who know this music. We feel we’ve done more in the US actually than we’ve done at home. We had a NPR feature at very good moment – we started getting emails from truck drivers in the south telling us that they were listening to this on the interstate. It takes a little bit longer to establish yourself in the UK. We now feel that we’re finding our place at this point.

LCC: Are you aware of the Seraphic Fire phenomenon over here in the US?

AG: Actually not…

LCC: They’re a Florida choir who achieved the unexpected by knocking Lady Gag off the top of the itunes charts: they were actually number one in the nation for awhile. They did it with a wonderful recording of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610…

AG: How extraordinary! That’s brilliant…I think when people get the chance to listen to this music, it can be a real revelation. A lot of people have never heard of Monteverdi. To think that there are that many people who will listen to two hours of it is really wonderful…

LCC: Is there a single mission behind Stile Antico, by comparison, say, to the Tallis Scholars? Something that makes you stand out from the other well-known early music choirs out there?

AG: I guess in that we don’t have a conductor…that our collaborative way of making music is unique, I think at least in a group of our size. We explore things much like a string quartet would. We have a lot of rehearsals, so when we get into concert we really know the material inside out. If you haven’t got someone to remind you what a certain gesture means, you really have to know what it’s going to be, or else…

LCC: Since you don’t have a conductor, do you have a signal system of sorts between members, for cues? Or is that necessary?

AG: Only at very specific moments – at the very beginning or ends of things. The analogy of the string quartet, with the first violin having everyone come in at the same time, works here. Remember, we’ve been together for ten years and we still have eight of the original twelve members. It’s very, very important to us that the turnover in the group is as little as possible: we have to know how the others work!

LCC: Given the sheer complexity of what you sing, there are bound to be a few glitches here and there. How do you handle mistakes? Do you go to the trouble of recording yourselves and listening back afterward?

AG: We do listen to things afterward. But remember, if someone misses a key, chances are at least two other people are singing, which minimizes it. More disruptive than hitting the wrong note is a rhythmic mistake: potentially much more of a problem. We’ve actually never had a disaster like that. Most of us have sung since age eight or ten so we’re very used to this.

LCC: What is your preparation for shows? You’ll be on your feet singing for the better part of  two hours, most of it without a break, and you have to hit the notes. Do you have a pre-concert ritual?

AG: We rehearse in the afternoon like everyone else…we do gather before we go on, about five minutes before the show and go over what we want to think about…and we try to keep pretty quiet after that to let ourselves concentrate!

LCC: Your sound is seamless, really together as one – there seems to me to be a lot of chemistry in the group. Are there friendships within Stile Antico that extend beyond the concert hall and rehearsal room? Not that I’m trying to dig up dirt or anything…

AG: We are very good friends actually. There are three sisters in the group, and two of us are married. So that helps when we sit down and just talk about what our goals are, and what we are achieving. But the premise from the beginning was that we were keen to keep it a social thing as much as a musical thing and that’s still true today.

LCC: Rock star question: let’s compare Stile Antico to a rock band for a minute, shall we? Is there a dominant personality? A mystic? A class clown?

AG: Various clowns at various times. We all take the lead on different things, and that spills over into how it organizes us. One of us does the travel, another does the website, we try to play to our different strengths. I don’t think there’s a ringleader…

LCC: Does it ever astound you that you’ve achieved popularity with music that, much of it at least, went centuries without being performed?

AG: I think it’s very exciting. We all really feel strongly that we’re not presenting these in pieces, out of context. We’re sort of taking them out of the museum…people think that it’s such a big thing to play and sing, but these are works that were sung and enjoyed by everyday people hundreds of years ago. We rarely speak of dynamics, per se: we speak about the character of the music…we try to find something in it that resonates with us to resonate with other people as well. We find again and again that people are engaging emotionally with our music. You don’t necessarily have to know the rules and understand it in a scholarly way to appreciate it.

LCC: Your album Media Vita, which came out earlier this year, is not only exquisitely sung, it’s also sonically exquisite. I’m curious as to where you recorded it…

AG: We were so lucky to find a special church in North London: All Hallows, Gospel Oak. It’s not a particularly well-known church. If you’re a recording musician, a lot of people know about it, otherwise not. What actually happened with the church is that they ran out of money as it was being built. The columns are in stone, with a wooden roof. It’s acoustically fantastic.

Stile Antico sing a program including pieces from the 15th to the 17th century by William Byrd, Guillaume Dufay, Nicolas Gombert, Josquin des Prez, Alonso Lobo, Heinrich Schutz, and Orlande de Lassus as well as John Sheppard’s massive, haunting Media Vita at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 338 W 46th St., on Saturday, October 16 at 8 PM. Tickets are available at the Miller Theatre box office, 116th St. and Broadway, open noon-6 PM Monday-Friday, via phone at 212-854-7799 and online.

For those outside of NYC, the rest of the tour schedule is below:

OCT. 7 – DURHAM, NC – Duke Chapel

OCT. 8 – WASHINGTON, DC – NPR – Tiny Desk Concert (national broadcast)

OCT. 9 – PITTSBURGH, PA – Calvary Episcopal Church/Renaissance & Baroque Society

OCT. 11 – CINCINNATI, OH – St. Peter in Chains Cathedral

OCT. 13 – DURHAM, NH – Johnson Theater/University of New Hampshire

OCT. 15 – CAMBRIDGE, MA -St. Paul Church/Boston Early Music Festival

September 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment