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Recognizing that a "series" should not be confined to pianists, string quartets, or other solo artists, in 2014-15 Duke Performances is presenting the Vocal Ensemble Series as part of the lineup. The 2014 portion closed out with the presentation of New York Polyphony, as you might guess, a New York City-based all male vocal quartet founded in 2006. This was their first concert at Duke University or in Durham, and in addition to the spectacular talents of the group, it was yet another opportunity to showcase another facet of the acoustic gem that is now Baldwin Auditorium – can you imagine having seriously said that three years ago? Voices unadorned by those pesky instruments are notoriously difficult for acousticians to perfect, but New York Polyphony, standing just about mid-depth of the stage, sounded as if they were privately singing to you; each voice independent yet sublimely blended with the others.
New York Polyphony is Geoffrey Williams, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor, Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone, and Craig Phillips, bass. Although specialists in the rich and voluminous repertoire from the medieval and Renaissance eras of music history, these men also have a strong commitment to both the performance and commissioning of contemporary music. This was quite evident in the selections on this program, which was called Sing Thee Nowell, a holiday program of extraordinary scope and breadth. There was music from the 16th century all the way up to selections composed or arranged just a few years ago.
I'll put it bluntly: New York Polyphony does not put on a "show," despite the well-meaning but misplaced wishes by the ushers to "enjoy the show." This is not the King's Singers" of recent years, and you would no more hear New York Polyphony sing a Beatles song than hear them play a string quartet. Their publicity photo (and the cover of the well put together program) shows a rather severe and austere group of men. They take their art seriously, and there was absolutely nothing extraneous taking place. What you saw was four men in plain black suits with nothing else but a music stand off to the side to hold glasses of water. If that sounds a bit grim for your taste, then this was not the concert for you. However, if you value great music expertly sung with a sublime emotive connection to the text, and you're willing to focus and turn off any mental intrusions, then this was a musical experience to treasure. In addition, Geoffrey Williams served as the group's spokesman; he was actually quite amiable and helped lighten the mood a bit.
This was a concert of two distinct parts. The first half was somewhat esoteric as compared with the more widely known carols and Christmas songs that followed after intermission. The evening began with Veni Emmanuel, a stunning adaptation of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," written for New York Polyphony by the young Andrew Smith (b.1970). The harmonies were refreshing and inventive, as was a similarly commissioned version of "There is No Rose" by John Scott (b.1956). For my money, the highlight of the first half was a heavenly voyage that these men took us through via Tomás Luis De Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium. This is an example of the apex of Renaissance choral writing as well as a lesson in why this seemingly simple music (on manuscript paper) is exceedingly difficult to sing well, especially when it's one voice per part: there is no subtle and selective hiding here. Intonation was consistently perfect, the blending of parts was telepathic, and the diction (even for most of us mortals who do not understand Latin) was crisp and clear. Especially satisfying were several utterly delicious cadences, even drawing a guttural response from the generally staid audience.
The second half featured wonderful arrangements of some of the more popular songs that you'll hear throughout December. "I Saw Three Ships" was given the Ralph Vaughan Williams treatment with his unique, recognizable pastoral harmonies. Four selections featured arrangements by Alexander Craig, with an unusually subdued version of "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella," "The Darkest Midnight in December," and "Sleep Now" being commissioned by New York Polyphony.
It's not often that you get to experience a musical performance so naked, so exposed, and so transforming. With no instruments, microphones, or artificial enhancement of any kind, these few hours were the welcome antithesis of the constant bombardment of noise and social media attacks we endure unceasingly. For some it takes a while to quiet your mind down and just listen to this incredible gift. We all can use more time spent in the company of New York Polyphony!
Note: The ensemble has released a recording devoted to this repertoire. Click here for details.
*The King's Singers were in Tryon on Dec. 15. We'll have a review in a few days.