New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Christopher Dylan Herbert

An Old World Premiere and an Ambitious New Choral Work From New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony are pretty much unique in the world of choral music in that they sing world premieres from five hundred years ago as well as from the here and now. The quartet – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – are as expertly protean as protean gets. One reason why they’re able to find so much fascinating, previously unreleased early music – beyond simply being experts at sleuthing it out – is that they’re smaller than most choirs and focus on the most intimate side of medieval masses and motets. The other is that they have sufficiently formidable chops to tackle this material – some of which was sung by boys at the time it was written – and Herbert’s steely upper register has a lot to do with that.

Their latest album And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide is streaming at Spotify. The group open with fifteenth century Flemish composer Loyset Compère’s stately, utterly otherworldly Crux Triumphans. The group’s resolute command of the pairing of highs against lows leaves the impression that they are a much larger ensemble: it’s a device that’s worked for everyone from Mozart to Gil Evans.

From there, the group shift seamlessly from a spaciously soaring, brief Josquin piece, to the hypnotic, swaying, terse echo effects and persistently unsettled ancient/modern harmonic juxtapositions of contemporary composer Andrew Smith‘s Salme 55.

A diptych by a slightly later fifteenth century Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert, features more dramatic upper register work. From there the group move on to alternately desolate and delicately rhythmic 20th century Estonian terrain for a psalm setting by Cyrillus Kreek.

Their latest old world premiere is Compère’s nine-part suite Officium de Cruce. It’s a Book of Hours meditation, its brief segments ranging from proto-operatic counterpoint to a mystical sway and back. The rather brooding sixth segment, where those rhythms intertwine, is the highlight. The quartet close the album with a thoughtful, spacious, benedictory work by a Compère contemporary, Pierre de la Rue [editor’s note – no relation :)].

The kinds of venues these guys would typically serenade a year ago are dragging their feet reopening, which only means that crowds are going to stick with the vastly less expensive speakeasy circuit when they do. A radical shift in how live music is presented in New York City is underway. The old venue-centric model is being replaced by a community and artist-based scene…and some would say that change is long overdue.

New York Polyphony Deliver a Timely World Premiere From 500 Years Ago

Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!
Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium
Princeps provinciarum facta est sub tributo

Those are the opening lines of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, set to music by Spanish composer Francisco de Peñalosa in the early 1500s. New York Polyphony sing the world premiere recording with radiance and gravitas on their most recent album Lamentationes, streaming at Spotify. Here’s a decent translation from the liner notes:

How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she who was great among nations
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave

Sound familiar?

But all hope is not lost! The recent push in the New York State legislature to strip Andrew Cuomo of his authority and restore democracy could have game-changing implications for the state of the arts here, and ultimately, around the world. If all goes well we might actually be able to see this once-ubiquitous quartet sing their irrepressible mix of the ancient and the cutting-edge somewhere in this city this year.

The ensemble – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – bookend their Peñalosa premiere around a brief, rather somber stabat mater by his contemporary, Pedro de Escobar. They open the album’s centerpiece slowly and stately, rising to the daunting demands of the composer’s range throughout this requiem for Jerusalem in the wake of the attack by Babylonian forces in 568 BC. Their unswerving resonance builds a hypnotic ambience as the music and the exchanges of phrases between voices grow slower, rising with considerably greater angst as the first part winds out. The second half, referencing divine retribution, is slower. more tersely focused, and also more immersively haunting as it goes on. It is a shock this music hasn’t been recorded before.

There are a handful of other, shorter Peñalosa compositions and excerpts from masses here as well. Texts from his Missa L’homme armé, based on a folk melody popular at the time, offer warner, hypnotically circling harmonies, stirring plainchant-inflected cadences, and benedictory resolution.

The album also includes a pair of works by a somewhat later Spanish composer, Francisco Guerrero: a wavelike 1555 setting from the Song of Songs and a brief, rousing vernacular work from 1598.