In a showcase of talent and intricately woven harmonies, choral quartet New York Polyphony held a capacity audience in rapt attention at Hudson Hall for its performance of 16th-century choral music. The only note of disappointment was that this was the final concert in the series of Leaf Peeper concerts for this season. One will have to wait until next season to engage with the profoundly thoughtful music offered through the Leaf Peeper concerts under the direction of renowned flautist Eugenia Zukerman.
Introducing the performance, Zukerman said that the 2019 season is shaping up with “terrific plans.” Welcoming New York Polyphony to the stage, she described the vocal quartet with a single word, “astonishing.”
The drenching of a nor’easter did not deter concertgoers. The reward for the effort was an evening of exhilarating uplift. The stage was bare, needing no adornment. Complex, pure harmonies more than filled the space.
The remarkably teamed voices are Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass.
The program of nine early choral musical selections was gathered under the title of “Oltremontani,” translated as “over the mountains” (to Italy). Countertenor Geoffrey Williams, soon to earn his Ph.D. in choral conducting from the University of Illinois, explained that during the 16th century, musicians were making the trek over the mountains from Flanders and France to neighboring Italy where they brought new polyphonic techniques that influenced Palestrina and Monteverdi. French-born Philippe Verdelot invented the first madrigals in Florence.
They began with religious songs by William Byrd, Philippe Verdelot, and Giovanni da Palestrina.
Each piece by English, French, and Italian composers was a tapestry of richly textured sound, impeccably on target, and nuanced to bring out the complex sounds intended by early composers of vocal music. These are modern voices giving listeners the gift of appreciating early repertoire.
Bass Craig Phillips spoke of the concept embodied by New York Polyphony, formed in 2006, and going strong ever since. Rather than being a choral ensemble, he said, their repertoire is in the continuum of chamber music, more related to that of a string quartet. “This music is the DNA of what later would grow into chamber music,” Phillips said. The ensemble aims to bring contemporary relevance to the centuries-old repertoire.
“Gabriel Archangelus,” by Philippe Verdelot (ca. 1480-1530) treated the listener to intertwining voices, as if they were in a dance of sound or a string quartet in lively conversation. Tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson excelled with deep felt emotion here.
Three French madrigals by Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) displayed the emotional heft that a madrigal can bring to the situation of an anguished lover. Each word possessed musical density magnified by the interplay of four voices. Bass Craig Phillips delivered an undercurrent soundscape that buoyed his fellow singers.
“La nuite froide et somber” by Orlandus Lassus (ca. 1552-1594) offered even simpler, taut lyrics which delivered a sweeter and tender ambiance with a delicacy of tone that influenced French poetry up to Verlaine and even beyond. Baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert bestowed a coloring radiance to the lines.
Verdelot’s madrigal “O dolce nocte” occupied a penultimate place, as if to illustrate the intense originality other madrigal composers had been striving to imitate or displace. These nine lines of varied length—all freighting the same rhyme ending—showed an airy voice that was intensely secular in sensual appreciation with an ethereal, philosophical blessing as Countertenor Geoffrey Williams adroitly shaded the song. This illustrated the new post-Petrarch, poetic sensibility.For a recent interview with Geoffrey Williams click here.
The final piece, “La Guerre” (The War—the Battle of Marignan), was a playful, challengingly intricate piece, an extended novelty piece which imitated the sounds of a battle between French and Swiss warriors. At the end of artistically amazing vocal acrobatics which comically imitated the sounds of arrows, catapults, swords, etc., the piece ends with the resigned surrender of a Swiss soldier, as if to emphasize that this was the quartet’s final piece. Ostensibly the celebration of a victorious war, it was also subversively a clever critique of battle as a childish solution.
The audience joyously reacted to the remarkable evening of vocal chamber music, ending the Leaf Peeper season with cheers and creating a palpable anticipation of what program 2019 will hold in store.