Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

CD Review: John Sheppard: Media Vita – Stile Antico

Stile Antico, the world’s most famous early music choral group, have outdone themselves. You probably know them – their most recent album Song of Songs topped the classical charts last year. Their latest is their best yet, a lush, majestic, hypnotic collection of works by cutting-edge sixteenth century British choirmaster John Sheppard. This isn’t the first all-Sheppard album – the Tallis Scholars did one over twenty years ago – but it is unquestionably the best. And hopefully the first of several more. In some ways, Sheppard was your typical hardworking church choir leader – never published during his lifetime, his work was performed by whatever group he happened to be working with…including the singers of the Queen’s Chapel. How could such a high-profile artist have fallen so far into obscurity? Lack of available manuscripts, many with missing parts; widespread availability of other perfectly good material to sing; the stubborn fact that Sheppard’s lavish scores are so challenging; and perhaps most plausibly, the fact that many of Sheppard’s works are in Latin, created for Mary Tudor’s Catholic liturgy, hardly a canon that your typical Anglican choir would have any desire to revisit. Technically speaking, Sheppard went for a giant wall of sound, utilizing six-part harmonies and even greater permutations along with dizzying counterpoint, but the six women and eight men of Stile Antico seem to relish the challenge (you can try this at home – there are scores at the Choral Public Domain Library) .

The centerpiece here is Sheppard’s colossal, haunting, death-fixated Media Vita. In an age when early mortality was the rule rather than the exception, it made sense (Sheppard himself probably never made it to fifty). It’s essentially a plea to be spared from impending death. Opening dramatically and continuing with an unrelenting intensity, the piece goes on for over twenty-five minutes – if you think the Messiah is difficult, try this on for size. What’s most amazing about this is that unlike an instrumental group or rock band, a choir can’t just punch in and record over a mistake: Stile Antico sing this all the way through, live.The other pieces here vividly illustrate the diversity of Sheppard’s compositions, notably the far more lively, soaring and only slightly less titanic call-and-response of the opening antiphon, and a couple of English-language hymnal arrangements which probably date from earlier in Sheppard’s career but already find him pushing the envelope. One of them was contemporaneously transcribed (or perhaps even originally written) as an instrumental for strings, testament to both Sheppard’s popularity during his lifetime as well as the melodic strength of his writing.

Not only is this album exquisitely sung, it is also exquisitely produced. The location where it was recorded doesn’t seem to be common knowledge (maybe the group are keeping it a secret!), but wherever it is, the natural reverb and slow decay time richly enhance the otherworldly – some would say heavenly – sonics.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment