Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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