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.

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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

An Otherworldly Album and Upcoming Concert from Stile Antico

Pioneering Renaissance choir Stile Antico return to New York this coming Saturday, April 21 for an 8 PM concert put on by the Miller Theatre folks at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 W 46th St. As of this writing, tix are still available via the Miller Theatre box office (Broadway and 116th St., and online). In case you might wonder how a choir singing five-hundred-year-old motets could possibly be pioneering, you haven’t heard Stile Antico. The self-directed twelve-voice group (they perform without a conductor, in the style of a string quartet) has made a career out of resurrecting obscure and underrated choral works from the 17th century and before then; their concerts are exhilarating. With their blend of male and female voices, they have a gyroscopic sonic balance, an absolutely necessity considering the dizzying and occasionally herculean demands of the music they sing. On their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi), they’re joined on several tracks by noted early music viol ensemble Fretwork.

Thematically, it’s a bit of a change from the towering (and sometimes harrowing) compositions they’ve mined during the early part of their career (although their Advent and Christmas-themed album Puer Natus Est foreshadowed this turn in a somewhat sunnier direction). The works here tend to be shorter and often less ornate – which can mean quieter, and on a couple of occasions, a showcase for individual group voices as the harmonies literally make their rounds. In the case where the choir isn’t going full steam, the sonics are sometimes fleshed out by gentle yet stately string arrangements, along with a small handful of instrumental preludes. The beauty of the performance transcends any specific religious association (although it’s nice to be able to understand the words without having to dig out that old Latin dictionary). A lineup of well-rembered composers is represented – Thomas Tallis, John Dowland and William Byrd, among others – but as usual, the gems here are the rarest ones. The modernity and outright, awestruck dissonances in John Amner’s A Stranger Here are literally centuries ahead of their time; Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen works a potently quiet, apprehensive counterpoint that threatens to break out into fullscale angst but never does. And Giovanni Croce’s From Profound Centre of My Heart would make a great pop anthem. Throughout the album, the low/high contrasts are characteristically vivid when they’re not so seamless that it seems like one single polyphonic voice is creating these otherworldly sonics, aided by the rich natural reverb of the church where they were recorded. Historically, much of this repertoire has been neglected in favor of better-known works from the church music canon; this is a richly enjoyable and valuable endeavor from two rightfully acclaimed ensembles.

April 17, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Christmas Album for Everybody

We finally found a Christmas album we like. Optimistic, anthemic and upbeat, Stile Antico’s new album Puer Natus Est is Renaissance choral music at its happiest and most un-gothic. It’s not particularly Christmasy and it doesn’t evoke images of blazing chestnuts, but it also doesn’t evoke images of catacombs full of dead monks (fans of Joy Division will have to look elsewhere). Subtitled “Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas,” it’s a festive holiday album for everyone, and at this point in history, far removed from its original context, it’s essentially nondenominational unless you speak Latin. It’s a mass that never would or could have happened, spanning the centuries, interpolating segments of Thomas Tallis’ unfinished Christmas mass, Puer Natus Est with selections from William Byrd’s Gradualia, a comprehensive and imaginative series of plainchant arrangements for the various church holidays. The fourteen-piece ensemble – the world’s most popular Renaissance vocal choir – blend voices more soaringly and considerably less hauntingly than on their death-fixated previous cd, the John Sheppard collection Media Vita.

Tallis’ Videte Miraculum makes a good natured “look what we have here,” in Latin, a characteristically rich arrangement lushly performed with a brief, stark solo for tenor. The oldest piece here, John Taverner’s sixteenth century Audivi Vocem de Caelo (I Heard a Voice in the Sky), with its bright high harmonies, may have been written exclusively for the choirboys. A hint of the season reveals itself in Tallis’ Gloria; contrasting austere and warmer folk melodies appear in later Byrd selections: the roots of Fairport Convention! The dramatic major/minor shifts of Tallis’ Sanctus et Benedictus pair off against the mysterious grandeur of Byrd’s Ave Maria; a rousing, anthemic holiday theme finally appears at the end of Tallis’ Agnus Dei. The second-oldest piece here, Robert White’s Magnificat, is the most exuberant, the contrast between the crystalline highs of the sopranos and the charcoal and chocolate of the lower registers at its most striking here. The album concludes with a work by one of the group’s favorite composers, John Sheppard. Translated as the Holy Word, its harmonic complexity and slowly unwinding  resolutions probably make more sense in this century than when they were written practically half a millennium ago. The album is out just in time for the holidays on Harmonia Mundi.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

Obscure Church Music Recording Knocks Lady Gag Off the Charts

The big story is that a self-released album of a 400-year-old Italian choral work by a couple of respected but little-known choirs from Florida and Michigan knocked Lady Gag off the top of the charts. It happened last month: the independently-released album of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 by Seraphic Fire with the Western Michigan University Choir actually reached the top of the itunes charts and then, after a little help from NPR, settled into the top ten of the itunes classical chart alongside the London Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma. As welcome as this news is, there’s considerable historical precedent for it. As far back as the 1950s, high-quality recordings by symphony orchestras from such unlikely spots as Rochester, New York and Louisville, Kentucky reached sizeable audiences, at least for the pre-internet era. And 2010 just happens to be the 400th anniversary of the Monteverdi Vespers, spurring renewed interest in a piece which has been a staple of the choral music repertoire practically since the year it was written.

The early music movement sprang from the desire to take medieval compositions out of the museum and play them with the same verve and raw energy with which they were created. This album is a sublime example of how well a group can bring that desire to life. Seraphic Fire director Patrick Dupre Quigley empasizes in the cd liner notes that Claudio Monteverdi, being a resourceful composer, wrote the piece with sufficient flexibility to make it suitable for ensembles both large and small. The intimacy of this performance vividly spotlights one of many possibilities offered by its writer, and one that’s been overlooked. Chorus master James K. Bass leads the choir along with understated accompaniment by Joel Spears on lute and theorbo, Philip Spray on violin and Scott Allen Jarrett and Karl Schrock on chamber organ. Plainly and simply, this rocks. The joyous, hypnotic insistence of the opening cantus firmus, the energetic counterpoint of the Dixit Dominus, the pinpoint inflections of the Duo Seraphim and the alternately lush and energetic dynamics of the Nisi Dominus are just a few of the highlights. By contrast, the Magnificat-a-6 here is rapturous and tersely otherworldly. As old as all this is, it’s amazing how modern it sounds. Over the centuries, the ideas in this piece have spread from Bach to Mozart to the art-rock bands of the 60s and many other places besides, testament to how far ahead of his time Monteverdi was.

So far the popularity of American Idol and all its spinoffs has not translated to renewing interest in early music as it has in the UK, with the popularity of Stile Antico et al. But it’s not out of the question to think that this album might help spur a resurgence on this side of the pond. After all, you can do this at home: the Choral Public Domain Library is the perfect place to start.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Las Rubias del Norte – Ziguala

The new cd by las Rubias del Norte would make a great Bunuel soundtrack. Otherworldly, surreal and frequently haunting bordering on macabre, it’s a characteristically eclectic, syncretic mix of old songs from around the world done as Veracruz’s best musicians might have imagined them circa 1964. Most of the melodies are in minor keys, the perfect backdrop for the sepulchrally soaring harmonies of the band’s two frontwomen, Allyssa Lamb (who’s also the band’s keyboardist) and Emily Hurst. Lamb and Hurst are a lot closer to Stile Antico than Shakira (or Jeanette, who sang the 1976 latin pop classic Porque Te Vas that the band turn into ghostly, organ-driven reggae to open the album). Which the two ought to be, considering that they met as members of the New York Choral Society. As the band’s website aptly points out, the album is more psychedelic rock than latin, “the opposite of Rock en Espanol,” even though most of the lyrics are in perfectly enunciated Spanish.

The title track is a Greek rembetika song with a bluesy, oldtimey gospel verse that gives way to a latinized chorus, followed by a clip-clop clave number a la Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, shuffling along with the muted strokes of Olivier Conan’s cuatro. A slyly levantine-inflected S.D. Burman Bollywood number lights up with Lamb’s eerily twinkling piano and the lushly brisk atmospherics of the Parker String Quartet, while a Brecht-Weill song gets an oversize margarita, a big sombrero and a balmy, slightly Jerry Garcia-ish electric guitar solo from Giancarlo Vulcano.

The rest of the album alternates psychedelia with stately, period-perfect angst and longing. A couple of the songs are dead ringers for Chicha Libre (with whom this band shares two members, Conan and percussionist Timothy Quigley). Navidad Negra turns a Caribbean big band number into cumbia noir, Lamb’s sultry organ passing the torch to Vulcano, who takes a surprisingly biting turn, while the traditional Viva La Fiesta becomes the theme to the saddest party ever. They close with hypnotic, classically inflected tropicalia that throws some welcome shade on the pitch-perfect brightness of the vocals, a Bizet cover bubbling with Lamb and Hurst’s contrapuntal sorcery and a downcast ballad, restrained melancholy over funeral-parlor organ. It’s gentle, scary and beautiful like just about everything else here. Look for this one high on our best albums of 2010 list at the end of December. Las Rubias del Norte play the cd release show for the album this Friday, March 12 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub followed by a midwest tour.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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