It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.
This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.
Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.
Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.
Cantata Profana Blend Renaissance Drama and Twentieth Century Austerity with Fun and Relevance at Symphony Space Tonight
The lights went down in the disused Roebling Avenue storefront, and then members of Cantata Profana – harpsichordist Daniel Schlosberg, theorbo player Arash Noori, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, violinist Jacob Ashworth, tenor Jonathan Blalock and baritone Jonathan Woody – launched into Monteverdi’s brooding kiss-off anthem, Interotte Speranze. What do you do the night before a big Symphony Space gig? Book a Williamsburg show…and pack the place. And then treat a mostly twentysomething crowd to mulled wine, Oreos and a surrealistically edgy, irresistibly fun performance that makes unexpectedly vivid connections between Renaissance vocal music and Twentieth Century austerity. As if we need more proof that there’s a young, engaged audience that’s clamoring for serious concert music but has been priced out at the establishment venues, this is it. If the idea of pairing hauntingly resonant Webern vocal works with proto-parlor-pop and proto-opera appeals to you, Cantata Profana are reprising last night’s entertainment at Symphony Space tonight at 8 PM; tix are $25/$10 stud.
Cantata Profana are a prime example of how versatility is the new specialization, across the musical spectrum these days: it’s the revenge of the utility player over the high-priced allstar. The ensemble – a core of singers and players surrounded by a semi-rotating cast – proved as at home with acidic Second Viennese School tonalities as with elegant medieval Italian balladry. The piece de resistance at this show is American composer George Rochberg’s Contra Morten et Tempus, with its hair-raising dynamic shifts and various quotes from Ives, Berio and other contemporaries. Another similarly bracing number on the program is Luigi Dallapiccola’s’ Due Liriche di Anacreonte, a showcase for tersely considered interplay between mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken Kelsey and among the supporting cast at well. And the juxtaposition between a partita by Renaissance Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, rising from a rather haunting, almost klezmer introduction to more easygoing Mediterranean tones, against the twelve-tone acerbity of Webern, was an example of shared ambition, an unexpectedly smooth segue.
To wind up the bill, the group employs a rather mystical diptych by Guido Caccini to set up Monteverdi’s famous early operatic piece Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, sung with appropriate drama by tenor Samuel Levine with support from Woody and scintillating sopratno Emma McNairy (whose raw power, unleashed in the small Williamsburg space, provided the night’s most adrenalizing moments). Like the rest of the earliest music on the bill, it makes an unanticipatedly good pairing alongside the serialist works – it’s hardly arioso, considering that the vocal line doesn’t really move around that much, leaving the cruel irony of the deadly duel between the knight and his crush-in-diguise all the more resonant. Especially in our era of global conflicts which are no less logically twisted.
It’s possible that the best globally-known export from the South Korean city of Suwon is its Civic Chorale, who made an exciting and eclectic debut in New York at Alice Tully Hall last night, meticulously directed by In-Gi Min. That a lush, vividly poignant arrangement of the Agnus Dei section of Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings was not the highlight of the program testifies to the diversity of the rest of the bill and the choir’s otherworldly power. In both the 20th century and traditional Korean pieces, both Asian and Western scales were employed, typically within the same work. Both Korean and American composers were represented, and although the Korean works surpassed the American material in terms of edgy harmony and intricate polyphony, every arrangement had something unique and often unusual to offer.
Beyond being simply entertaining, this ensemble can be very funny. The audience chuckled throughout a drolly choreographed Vivian Fung arrangement of a Malaysian monkey dance – guys against the girls – and was equally tickled by not one but three works illustrating birdsong – which the group delivered with an amazing verisimilitude in full-blown stereo. Gyun-Yong Lee’s Bird song featured two pairs of soloists trading off with both each other and the ensemble, with spine-tingling moments from both high soprano and low bass as species from a roc to a phoenix were depicted. By contrast, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque and Little Birds gave the group a chance to show off their ability to work lustrous, minutely jeweled magic.
The ensemble opened with a rousing yet nuanced arrangement of Airiramg, the only national song that’s a curse, meaning, essentially, “leave me and your feet will hurt before you’ve walked a couple of miles.” The Kyrie from Jong-Sun Park’s Airirang Mass bristled with eerie close harmonies and low/high dynamic tension. Keeyuong Kim’s Dona Nobis Pacem, an elegaic tone poem of sorts sung in the Asian pentatonic scale and dedicated to the victims of the poison gas attacks in Syria, grew in waves to rather harrowing crescendos
The group paired amped-up folk songs: the anthemic, somewhat predictably nostalgic Gagopa (Wishing to Return) and a lumber camp song which literally lumbered, a grim illustration of the arduous conditions faced by rural laborers as the singers literally panted in unison Then Jeeyoung Kim’s Miserere brought back the austere close harmonies and angst
After the Barber, the group sang Shenandoah with a wistful, towrering sway – it was the most traditionally Western piece on the program. The program concluded with Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, delivered with an icepick staccato almost all the way through, to the point where the high and low registers diverged for an all-too-brief, showstopping explosion of voices.
This year may the centenary of the Rite of Spring, the Da Capo Chamber Players’ pianist Blair McMillen reminded the crowd at Merkin Hall last night, but it’s also the centenary of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Lucy Shelton opened the group’s performance of the iconic avant garde work – a staple of hundreds of horror films over the years – by placing a puppet in a tiny wicker chair at the edge of the stage directly in front of the ensemble. One hand on her hip, the other holding herself up on the piano, wild grin straining across her face, Shelton made a delectably demonic moonstruck matron. Crooning, imploring, one second petulant, the next gleeful. she played the role to the hilt. At one point she fanned herself energetically (which may not have been an act – it could have been hot onstage), then ostentatiously took a couple of hits off a snifter of red liquid (vodka cranberry? Nyquil?) and then offered some to the rest of the musicians. Everybody declined.
As dark, carnivalesque, deliberately ugly music – and as a prototype for serialism – Schoenberg’s suite is pretty much unsurpasssed. The Da Capos’ version last night was particularly impactful because they played the calmer sections with such a low-key elegance, leaving plenty of headroom for the piano or the violin or the flute to fire off the occasional savage, atonal cadenza. Watching the group, what was most striking was how minimalist so much of the piece is: the entire group is in on it only a small fraction of the time. Otherwise, it was left to a combination of perhaps three or even fewer instruments out of the piano, Meighan Stoops’ clarinet or bass clarinet, Curtis Macomber’s violin, James Wilson‘s cello and Patricia Spencer’s flutes beneath the vocals. In many places, the music mocks those vocals, sometimes overtly, sometimes by maintaining a perfect calm while the crazy puppet coos and rasps and pulls against imaginary shackles.
Many of the melodies are parodies of circus music. The famous circus riff that everybody knows – dat-dat, da-da-da-da, DAT-dat, da-da – or rather a twisted version thereof, gets played by the cello about midway through the suite. Otherwise, the phantasmagoria is sometimes enhanced, sometimes weirdly masked by the composer’s use of tritones and dissonance in place of anything resembling a resolution. At the end, Shelton took it down with just the hint of a cackle for good measure and won the group three standing ovations.
A Mohammed Fairouz suite that appropriated the title of the Schoenberg work opened the night. Hubristic a move as it was, Fairouz is fearless about things like that. This suite didn’t have his usual politically-fueled edge but it did have his signature wit and eclectic tunesmithing. The ensemble gamely tackled a rather difficult series of switches from uneasy operatics, to lush chamber pop, noir cabaret, gleeful circus rock and finally a plaintive art-rock anthem that morphed into Queen-y histrionics. It was too bad that the vocals and the lyrics weren’t up to the carefully measured melodicism and clever layers of meaning that Fairouz had given the music. As the piece stands, it has a bright future as a suite of songs without words.
It’s always a treat to discover an excellent new orchestra. Saturday night on the upper west side, the Spectrum Symphony and the New York Festival Singers joined forces for a concert as richly captivating as anything that could have possibly been happening just a couple of blocks east at Lincoln Center or at Carnegie Hall. A member of the string section noted sardonically during the intermission that this orchestra is “the pickup group of pickup groups.” If that’s the case, one can only wonder what kind of transcendence they could deliver with a few more rehearsals. As it was, the whole orchestra was cohesive, nuanced and responsive to conductor David Grunberg’s matter-of-fact, determined focus.
They opened with the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20. This isn’t Mozart in hurried, let’s-get-this-over-with mode. It’s a lively, tuneful piece that recycles a few motifs from Don Giovanni, lit up with dynamic shifts and energetic exchanges between voices. Guest Steven Graff brought an agile, rapidfire, imaginative edge to the piano, notably his own improvised cadenzas, which were as bitingly entertaining as they were anachronistic, taking the piece two hundred years into the future. Yet these made a perfect fit with the music.
A percussionist supplied a single, funereal bell note as the strings swirled and rose in Arvo Part’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten with a restrained shimmer, hypnotic and vividly regretful (Part was reputedly chagrined that he never met Britten). The concert concluded with a rewardingly lush, ornate take on the Faure Requiem. Conventional wisdom is that it’s a lighthearted view of death, and that’s hardly the case. Faure reputedly wrote it on a lark, but this ensemble gave it majesty and depth, the richness of the choir blending with the swells of the orchestra, the organ utilizing stops in the center of the church, creating an all-emcompassing, surround-sound experience for those lucky enough to be in the right place.
The soloists, soprano Beverly Butrie and baritone Alec Spencer were superb as well. Butrie has a voice that ought to be heard more. It’s original, and it’s grounded in a considerably lower resonance that you would expect from a true soprano, even though she hit the high notes in this piece with a nonchalance and a liquid yet firmly anchored vibrato that fit like a glove with the demands of her solos. A delivery like hers is more typically found in the Middle East and India, but not so much here, all the more reason to seek her out. By contrast, Spencer went for intensity, stayed in the haunted zone and never left. As the work shifted from methodical and somber to more airy and ethereal, Grunberg and the orchestra maintained an unhurried focus, letting the piece breathe and the polyphonics reach toward something closer to a spree than a sepulchre. The Spectrum Symphony performs regularly but not frequently; watch this space for future concerts.
It’s hard to imagine a more exciting vocal group than Roomful of Teeth. Friday night at Lincoln Center, at the release show for their new album – just out from New Amsterdam – it became clear that to be a part of this band, it’s not only necessary to have powerful pipes and spectacular range, and soul, but also an aptitude for Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, microtones and Balkan music. The nine-piece ensemble, directed with casual assurance by Brad Wells, wowed the crowd with their command of techniques from around the globe, but also with their passion and acuity for a series of almost cruelly difficult, often absolutely gorgeous works by contemporary composers that bring out every octave worth of these singers’ talent.
They opened with a Judd Greenstein piece titled Montmartre. Greenstein is a showy composer and this piece was characteristic, but it had melody to match the theatrics: the women punching in contrapuntally against the mens’ low, oscillating, pulsing throat-singing. The group switched nimbly to lushly shifting ambient harmonies with intertwined call-and-response, soprano Virginia Warnken bringing its central crescendo to a vivid peak. The men ended it with a triumphantly flangey swirl of throat-singing – it’s one thing to do that individually, it’s another to do it in harmony and with the kind of precision they showed off here.
There were two Missy Mazzoli compositions on the bill. The first, Vesper Sparrow, was written just a couple of weeks ago. The women swooped with distant echoes of birdsong which gave way to Mazzoli’s signature swirls of attractively consonant melody with just the hint of apprehension. The women in the group displayed unexpeced power in their low registers, soprano Caroline Shaw lighting the way as the piece took on a considerably somber, plainchant aspect, pulsing richly with every available harmony. The second number, The Shield of the Heart Is the Heart playfully switched from a half-yodeled round to another intricate thicket of shifting polyphony and counterrythms thinly disguising a jaunty doo-wop theme.
The most striking composition on the bill might have been Sarah Kirkland Snider’s The Orchard, sung with vivid uneasse by bass Cameron Beauchamp over rhythmic insistence from the women and warily shifting textures from the rest of the crew. In its dark heart, it turned out to be a pensive, folk-tinged art-rock anthem for choir. After a descent into moody ambience, the ensemble let it linger austerely at the end. In its own understated way, it was a showstopper.
The night’s wildest momehts came during William Brittelle’s dramatically shapeshifting Amid the Minotaurs. Brittelle has great musical wit, and this triptych was loaded with it. Inspired by famed Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who died barely a month after retiring from football, it juxtaposed a deadpan, sarcastic hymn with faux-operatic cheerleading and finally a power ballad of sorts that had Warnken namechecking Louis Farrakhan at the top of her register at full gale force: as Brittelle’s lyrics made clear beyond any doubt, death is not the least bit subtle.
Other works on the bill included a Shaw composition, Courante, its rustic, hymnal melody featuring vivid high/low contrasts speckled with unexpectedly jarring accents and bookended by whispery, breathy rhythmic interludes. Rinde Eckert’s Cesca’s View also explored rustic Americana, setting leaping, yodeling motifs against a warmly nocturnal backdrop punctuated by clever echo effects.
A piece by mErRiLl gArBuS, tHe oNcE aNd fUtUrE tUnEyArDs, wAs A sIgNaL tHaT iT wAs tImE tO lEaVe [sorry, couldn’t resist]. With groups like these, the obvious stars are found at the extremes: high soprano Esteli Gomez, with her effortless, spun-silk timbre; Shaw with her powerful, crystalline delivery; Beauchamp, who’s not afraid to go down low for laughs as well as power; and baritone Dashon Burton, who not only matched Beauchamp for lowdown impact, but also showed off a dazzling falsetto. Tenor Eric Dudley, soprano Martha Cluver and baritone Avery Griffin also had dazzling moments of their own, particularly when it came to throat-singing. For sheer thrill factor, on a good night for music, Roomful of Teeth were impossible to surpass.
In this era where full-length albums are becoming noticeably scarcer, they still make a handy way to follow the careers of the musicians and composers who continue to record them. Notable example: Sara Serpa. Her debut, Praya, was an aptly titled, beachy, enjoyably quirky collection that introduced her as a unique new voice. The singer/composer’s speciality is vocalese: she doesn’t often use lyrics, and she doesn’t scat, per se. She simply performs as an instrument within a group, whether out front or as a member of the supporting cast. Her clear, unadorned, disarming voice has an extraordinary directness, and honesty, and depth of feeling: if it was possible to look a mile down and see the bottom of the ocean with perfect clarity, Serpa would be the instrument to make that happen.
Her second album Camera Obscura, a collaboration with legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, established her as one of the great singers of her time: the album is a hushed, haunting thrill ride. Her latest one, Mobile, solidifies that rep and also puts her on the map as a first-rate composer. Every track here is solid. Serpa may play mostly jazz clubs with musicians from that community, but her style transcends genre. Academics would call it third stream: lately, she’s let some influences from her home country show themselves; she also happens to be unsurpassed at torchily brooding blues ballads.
As emotionally impactful as her music tends to be, it’s also rigorously cerebral. This album includes ten tracks, each inspired by a different book. Its central theme is travel: Serpa is Portuguese, based in New York when she’s not on tour, and obviously no stranger to new surroundings. The compositions follow a clear narrative: to call them cinematic would be an understatement. Ironically, Serpa’s presence here takes a back seat to the band sometimes – and wow, what a band. Pianist Kris Davis makes a perfect choice to channel Serpa’s uneasy yet resolute minor keys, austerely glimmering chordlets and the occasional rippling cadenza. Bassist Ben Street and drummer Ted Poor have a casual but incisive chemistry as they work their way up and down again, while guitarist Andre Matos also contributes.
The opening track, Sequoia Gigantis, begins with her quoting from Travels with Charley by Steinbeck: “The trees are an ambassador from another time.” Building toward an otherworldly ambience, she balances spaciously impressionistic piano and a couple of contrastingly off-kilter guitar excursions right up to a tremendously effective tradeoff to the vocals: it’s almost impossible to tell where the guitar leaves off and Serpa takes over, with an increasing sense of wonder. Ulysses’ Costume is a funk-infused number, Davis and Poor maintaining a dark undercurrent with some creepy Monk-inflected clockwork architecture as Serpa alludes to the hero recalling his journey’s ups and downs. Inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s Area of Darkness – a chronicle of the author’s 1962 trip to India to explore his roots there – Pilgrimage to Armanath sets wary vocalese over austerely spacious electric piano and acoustic guitar, working methodically toward something approaching an epiphany.
Ahab’s Lament – a Moby Dick reference – begins creepy and grows triumphant. As Matos’ guitar climbs judiciously toward a big crescendo, this could be the Grateful Dead in 1969, with a good singer. From there they practically segue straight into If, a chilling return to Serpa’s noir days with Blake. E.e. cummings never sounded so plaintive or torn up, Matos’ chromatics enhancing the wounded ambience. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 2001 African memoir Shadow of the Sun, the next track remains pensive, although it has the most improvisational feel of anything here, Serpa holding the center after the band all climbs together and then goes their separate ways, rustling and scurrying.
Serpa does the Amalia Rodrigues fado hit Sem Razao (No Reason) as rainy day jazz lit up by Davis’ piano behind the clouds, then takes the last verse pretty straight up. Gold Digging Ants, an image from Herodotus, is chilly, insistent and mechanical, most likely a deliberate choice, Serpa offering deadpan menace over apprehensive modalities. Corto (drawing on a Hugo Pratt graphic novel) stays dark and picturesque, an evocation of ocean waves. They end it with City of Light, City of Darkness, influenced by Portuguese writer Jose Rodrigues Migueis’ Gente da Terceira Clase (The People in Third Class), a series of interwoven vignettes including what could be bustling subway and street scenes. As one would expect from Serpa, it ends unresolved. There’s an enormous amount to sink your ears into here: count this among the half-dozen best albums of the year in any style of music. Serpa plays the album release show for this one tomorrow night, the 13th at 8:30 at the Cornelia St. Cafe here in town and then on the 15th at the Lily Pad in Boston with Davis, Matos and a similarly solid rhythm section.
This is a Halloween album. New York ensemble Dollshot’s M.O. is to take hundred-year-old classical “art songs,” do a verse or a chorus absolutely straight-up and then matter-of-factly and methodically mangle them – which might explain the “shot” in “Dollshot.” Usually the effect is menacing, sometimes downright macabre, but just as often they’re very funny: this group has a great sense of humor. Pigeonholing them as “punk classical” works in a sense because that’s what they’re doing to the songs, but they also venture into free jazz. And all this works as stunningly well as it does because they’re so good at doing the songs as written before they get all sarcastic. Frontwoman Rosalie Kaplan’s otherworldly beautiful, crystalline high soprano, which she colors with a rapidfire vibrato in places, makes a perfectly deadpan vehicle for this material. Pianist Wes Matthews circles and stabs with a coroner’s precision in the upper registers for a chilly, frequently chilling moonlit ambience. In the band’s most punk moments, tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan is the ringleader: when he goes off key and starts mocking the melodies, it’s LOL funny. Bassist Giacomo Merega alternates between precise accents and booming atmospherics that rise apprehensively from the depths below.
The three strongest tracks are all originals. The Trees, written by Matthews, sets nonchalantly ominous, quiet vocals over a hypnotic, circular melody with bass and off-kilter prepared piano that hints at a resolution before finally turning into a catchy rock song at the end. “The trees are falling…the trees are choking…the pail is falling…” Surreal, and strange, and also possibly funny – it perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band. Noah Kaplan’s Fear of Clouds is the most stunningly eerie piece here, ghost girl vocalese over starlit piano and then an agitated crescendo with bass pairing off against quavery saxophone terror – it would make a great horror movie theme. And the closing cut, Postlude, layers sepulchral sax overtones over a damaged yet catchy hook that refuses to die.
The covers are more lighthearted. Woozy sax pokes holes in an otherwise dead-serious and absolutely spot-on version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Galathea and his twisted little waltz, Der Genugsame Liebhaber, which by itself already seems something of a parody. Poulenc gets off a little easier: the band adds add murky apprehension to La Reine de Coeur and leaves the gorgeously ominous Lune d’Avril pretty much alone other than adding some sepulchral atmospherics at the end. Bouncing gently on some completely off-center, synthy prepared piano tones, Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here Comes That Rainy Day is reinvented as art-song with a comic wink, yet while bringing the lyrics into sharper focus than most jazz acts do. And a Charles Ives medley of The Cage, Maple Leaves and Evening makes a launching pad for the unexpected power in Rosalie Kaplan’s stratospheric upper registers, as well as Matthews’ mountains-of-the-moon piano and an unexpected minimalist, ambient interlude that only enhances the nocturnal vibe. You’ll see this high on our list of the best albums of 2011 at the end of the year.
This year’s Vital Vox Festival, artfully assembled by the perennially eclectic and innovative Sabrina Lastman, wound up Saturday Night at Issue Project Room with some impressively captivating and entertaining performances. First on the bill was the Takadimi Duo, a.k.a. singer Lori Cotler and percussionist Glen Velez. In this project, their shtick is creating music out of the staccato, rhythmic konokol drum language frequently utilized by Indian percussionists – say “samosapapadum, canihavesomemorewaterplease” five times fast and you’ll get the picture. They got everyone, including themselves, laughing at a tongue-in-cheek “conversation,” Velez gamely trying to hold up his end against Cotler’s rapidfire syllabication. Her most captivating moment in a set full of many was a torchy, mysterioso number, like a jazzier Alessandra Belloni, slinking modally among the blue notes and occasionally punctuating Velez’ nocturnal ambience with a little dinner bell. Velez took a couple of frame drum solos and wowed the crowd with his ability to effectively replicate a John Bonham-style workup with just the fingers of one hand. At the end of the set, Cotler tried to get the audience to rap along with her – from the first few beats, it was obvious that this was a rhythmically challenged crew. Still, it was a lot of fun trying to keep up with her – and with Velez, who succeeded in getting at least a portion of the audience to join him in a shimmery display of overtone-tinged Tuvan throat-singing.
Audrey Chen was next, performing a solo set on vocals and cello, augmented by a homemade loop machine that would send showers of audio sparks oscillating throughout the mix as she roared, purred, growled, rasped and assaulted the crowd: as much as Cotler and Velez had tried to pull them in, it seemed that she was trying to clear the room. It didn’t work. And by the time she was finished, it was impossible not to want more. Chen doesn’t mess around with words: she goes straight to the emotion, usually the most intense one. She’s not merely in touch with her inner four-year-old – she also channeled her inner four-day-old, a voracious and easily disturbed presence whose violently perplexed, contrarian vocalese – if you could call it that – was impossible to turn away from. She scraped on her cello, looped the noise and ran it through a series of echo effects, sometimes mimicking them with her voice, sometimes adding the same effects to her vocals. If she hadn’t been such a forceful presence onstage, it would have been hard to tell which was which, woman or machine. Self-indulgent? Maybe. A riveting portrait of madness? Possibly. Compelling? Beyond words. Between her two, long pieces, she explained with a casual and considerably contrasting warmth that they were both improvisations. The lone linguistic phrase that made its way into her performance was a sinister, breathy whisper, “I’m hungry…for a bite of you.” After scraping yet more varnish off the edge of her cello between the bridge and the fingerboard, evoking a thousand horror-movie doors closing in unison, then getting its murky insides to rumble even lower, she ended with a couple of lush, still, stunningly lyrical Messiaenesque chords. Where the devil’s choir ended, she’d found genuine, otherworldly beauty.
Chen’s doing a duo show with Jim Pugliese at Issue Project Room on January 21.
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.