Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stile Antico Bring Rare, Epic Medieval Grandeur to the Upper West Side

Self-directed British choir Stile Antico might well be the world’s best-loved Renaissance vocal group. They work at a daunting pace, always on tour, always changing their repertoire and always recording it when they do. They have a passion for the obscure, the titanic – if you haven’t heard them sing John Sheppard’s Media Vita, you haven’t lived – as well as the pensive and poignant. Their latest album Divine Theatre: Sacred Motets by Giaches De Wert – is streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing their signature lustre and dynamics to the auditorium at 150 W 83rd St., between Amsterdam and Columbus Ave. on Feb 25 at 8 PM. Tix are available via the Miller Theatre at Columbia; the box office at 116th and Broadway is open M-F, noon-6. You can get in for $30 if you’re willing to settle for a seat that’s not on top of the stage.

This concert promises material from familiar composers including Thomas Tallis, Clemens Non Papa, Orlando Gibbons, Robert Ramsey and others. Why would Stile Antico want to go to bat for De Wert, five hundred years after his heyday? Maybe because his liturgical works are undeservedly obscure, as opposed to his pioneering madrigals. Born near Antwerp, he spent most of his life in Italy working for local tyrants, primarily in Mantua. His main boss interceded with the Vatican to allow a more liberal mass that gave De Wert room to be his innovative self. And none other than Claudio Monteverdi cited him as an influence. Some people would consider this analogy farfetched, but if Monteverdi is proto-Bach,  maybe De Wert is proto-Buxtehude.

The new album opens with waves of vocals, a brief rondo and then a steadily pulsing magic carpet of counterpoint, a series of currents, low, midrange and high – in constant and fascinating flux. Not all of these works have constant six-part harmony, which makes the effect all the more thrilling when it occurs.

Polyphony that would make the most ambitious art-rock band insanely jealous; jauntily insistent echo effects; a steadily creeping gothic sweep; a rather stern processional; unexpected rhythmic and thematic shifts, in keeping with whatever fire-and-brimstone narratives there are to illustrate. and eventually, holiday carol-like cheer all make an appearance. It’s no wonder Monteverdi held this composer in such high regard.

The standouts in choirs are inevitably easiest to pick up on at opposite extremes: resolute bass Will Dawes, spellbinding soprano Helen Ashby and her colleague Rebecca Hickey, with her diamond-cutting presence, are the most instantly recognizable. As much fun as this is to listen to in the dim light of a laptop late at night after a few drinks, nothing beats hearing this group in concert.

February 19, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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