I’ve written about the fine English early-music vocal ensemble Stile Antico more than once, and when I saw that Music Before 1800 was presenting the singers in New York I made sure to tramp through the 27 or so inches of snow blanketing Manhattan to get there. The program on tap combined the 12-member chorus with two founding figures (Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall) from Washington D.C.’s venerable Folger Consort and a somewhat ad hoc viola da gamba ensemble from New England known as the Arcadia Viols.
Sadly, the blizzard of this past weekend had forced the group’s Washington D.C. concerts to be cancelled. But happily for New York City’s early music enthusiasts, the entire ensemble, along with most of the audience, made it to Corpus Christi Church in upper Manhattan near Columbia University, where “The Wonder of Will: Early and New Music Celebrating Shakespeare” proved a brilliant Sunday afternoon success.
If you’d told me that these musicians had been touring together with this program for years I would have believed you. Perfectly in sync and well-balanced, the singers and instrumentalists turned the generous space of the church into a sonorous music hall. The program consisted of pieces by John Dowland, William Byrd, and other composers of Shakespeare’s time along with several works by modern composers, some commissioned for these musicians.
All but one pair of works began with one of Dowland’s “seven tears” (“Lachrimae”) pavans, slow dances for viols and lute. While any of these beautifully constructed pieces might evoke tears, their moods vary: tragic, spooky, restful.
The exception was “Lachrimae Fantasy,” a brand new piece by contemporary composer Will Ayton based on Dowland’s pieces. More meditative than sad, it featured sheer Coplandesque harmonies even as it reflected Dowland, and included an exquisite interlude for solo lute.
The other modern pieces showcased the singers of Stile Antico. Nico Muhly’s “Gentle Sleep,” a setting of part of Henry IV’s soliloquy in Henry IV, Part II, received its New York premiere. It draws ghostly harmonic curtains lined with solo melodies from several voices, its angular harmonies coming to an unexpected quiet end.
I liked the Muhly piece, but Huw Watkins’s setting of Shakespeare’s strange poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” pleased me more. Modernistic staccato enunciations, cloudbursts of harmony, piercing dissonances, and some illustrative effects gave the verses the loft they ought to have. Scholars don’t know whether the poem is a Catholic allegory, as some have suggested. (Any idea about the Bard, who left nothing directly autobiographical, causes excited speculation, not least the hypothesis that he was a secret Papist.)
Dowland’s conversion to Catholicism is well known. It caused no end of trouble for him in his home country. And Byrd was a Catholic all his life. It’s fascinating to listen to their works in the context of the violent struggle for England’s religious soul. The program included Byrd’s setting of the poem “Why do I use my paper, ink and pen,” which speaks “of saints whose names cannot decay,” sung beautifully by one of Stile Antico’s altos.
Another highlight was the song “Full Fathom Five” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest set to music by the composer Robert Johnson – likely the music used in the original production. We have few records of the music Shakespeare’s company itself used, and it’s wonderful to have this bit. (The Folger Consort’s own album A Distant Mirror: Shakespeare’s Music includes a setting of the same text attributed to Henry Purcell, but written not for the original play but for an adaptation by John Dryden and William D’Avenant.)
In full array, Stile Antico adjusted its singers’ positioning for different pieces, but often stood in roughly male-female-male-female order, which resulted in a pleasing melding of the voices. An expert choir this size (12 members) has enough heft for a dense, organ-like sound but can also stress the delicacy of individual voices. Singing both ancient and modern music, it was a joy to hear. In tandem with the fine musicians of the Folger Consort and the Arcadia Viols, Stile Antico turned the church itself into an Arcadia of harmony, counterpoint, and song.