by Michael Cirigliano II
For their contribution to Miller Theatre’s Early Music
Series Saturday night, male vocal quartet New York Polyphony delivered an
exceptionally curated program that encompassed both Elizabethan masses and 21st-century
reflections on religious subjects. To a packed crowd at Times Square’s Church
of St. Mary the Virgin, the ensemble presented works of Byrd and Tallis, as
well as their little-known pre-Reformation predecessor, John Plummer. Although
the three works provided a comprehensive view to the Tudor-era religious
landscape, each composer imbued their mass with a distinctive color that was
effortlessly amplified by New York Polyphony’s exceptional sense of style.
Byrd’s Mass for Four
Voices progressed from elegant, academic choral writing to lavish and
highly ornamented melisma. The ensemble was in control throughout the work,
releasing each phrase in perfect unison, and amplifying percussive consonants that
resonated throughout the enormous Gothic church. Craig Phillips’ gravely bass
provided a rich foundation; a organ-like pedal that supported Steven
Caldicott’s rich tenor and Geoffrey Williams’ crystalline countertenor timbres.
Caldicott alternated between trumpeting solo material and a variety of warm
ensemble colors that interchanged based on the other voices at hand.
Contrasting Byrd’s private utterings was Plummer’s intricate
writing in his Missa sine nomine.
Although penned for three voices (and the addition of the solo countertenor
during two brief plainsong movements), Plummer hardly incorporates all three
voices at once—devilishly alternating between vocal pairs in a seamless
fashion. Here, Christopher Dylan Herbert was the true standout, with a textured
baritone voice that easily projected when paired with the tenor, while pulling
back in order to blend peacefully with the bass. Especially when compared to
Tallis’ reserved and demure mass writing, Plummer’s work pealed with jubilant
fanfares and a brisk sense of pacing.
Rounding out the program were three newer works from Andrew
Smith, Gabriel Jackson, as well as the recently deceased Richard Rodney
Bennett, whose A Colloquy with God was
written for New York Polyphony mere weeks before his death. Using a text of Sir
Thomas Browne, Bennett utilized a series of alternating suspensions and vibrant
text painting to express the poetry’s robust fight against impending death.
Smith and Jackson’s works followed in the same vein, serving as brief utterances
that provided momentary respite between each of the English masters’ major