One of the delightful characteristics of Appalachian State University's Performing Arts Series is that one never knows what to expect next. From rock bands to international folk artists, the variety of performers never ceases to surprise. New York Polyphony is no exception to the standard. This quartet, which consists of Geoffrey Williams, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor, Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone, and Craig Phillips, bass, specializes in early music and brings a purity and expressive distinction to their sound that makes this literature unforgettable.
The program opened with a sixteenth century "Ave Maria Mater Dei" by William Cornysh. The quartet filled the small hall with otherworldly sound, with the quavering ornaments and the harmonic progressions unfamiliar to modern ears. Tuning was slightly problematic at the very outset, but was quickly corrected. After a brief but informative commentary on the sources of the next works, the quartet performed several shorter pieces, including plainsong followed by two different settings, one fourteenth century and one by contemporary composer Andrew Smith, of the same text, "Flos regalis." The immediate transitions between the single melodic line of early polyphony to twentieth century dissonance proved thrilling.
It was in the next selection, a William Byrd mass, that the compelling approach this ensemble takes to texture and blend really shone. Each member of the quartet has a distinct timbre, and their individual vocal signatures are comparable to the instrumentation of a woodwind quintet (sans flute). Rather than sounding like a composite of disparate voices, however, quite the opposite is the case. Differences in sound are blended by an almost preternatural level of unity in interpretation, and the effect is a magical blend of individuality and ensemble that gives this quartet a stunning tone.
The rest of the performance featured shorter pieces. A collection of settings of texts from Song of Solomon by John Pyamour, John Dunstable, and John Plummer was particularly apropos, and a collection of music from the court of Henry VIII showed exceptional programmatic creativity and sensitivity. Vocal fatigue became a minor issue near the very end of the lengthy program but did not majorly detract from the performance.
In a Q and A session following the performance, Craig Phillips, an Appalachian State graduate, expounded upon the role of early music in the contemporary arts scene. He described the often overwhelming response the ensemble experiences, especially in small towns. The group attributed this to a hunger for musical authenticity in a culture where the music industry's strongest talent lies in production, rather than performance. Phillips also discussed the emotional content of their preferred style of music. Whereas musical expression across history has become increasingly emotionally programmatic, even manipulative, this style takes audiences back to a time when the music was a "blank slate." Before the Baroque doctrine of the affections ascribed specific emotions to it, music was a more abstract form of artistic expression that allowed for great freedom of interpretation.
That said there are still strong influences of the meaning of the text on the music. In some cases, it is specific examples of text painting. The dramatic illustration of the "descéndit" and "resurréxit" of the Credo make the words leap out of the familiar but un-comprehended Latin with a sudden conviction of meaning. Sometimes, however, a plaintive song of unrequited love resolves to a gentle major chord, which seems out of place to unaccustomed ears.
While this kind of programming makes for a music history buff's dream concert, this music does indeed have a special place in the twentieth century. It provides a sanctuary in a chaotic, over-produced sound-world, and that is something that every one of us can appreciate.