The Open Gates Project is a diversity initiative of Gotham Early Music Scene (GEMS) to promote the performance and enjoyment of early music by diverse artists and audiences. Its second concert, at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York City on 11 February, presented not one, not two, but four countertenors of color.
These superb singers were accompanied by a consort of four viols and noted harpsichordist Dongshok Shin in music by William Byrd, Henry Purcell, Händel and others.
Diversity in Early Music: More Than Just Words
The sparkling performances showed that Open Gates is not a mere lip-service DEI gesture like some of those cropping up in business and the arts today. We can’t change the fact that the European composers whose music comprises the early music canon were virtually all white men. But just as with classical music, artists from all backgrounds are discovering and applying their skills and talents to music of the 16th and 17th centuries (and earlier), enriching and enlivening the early music community for the benefit of audiences from all places and backgrounds.
Diversity aside, the concert was a pleasure from start to finish, thanks to fine musicianship and a thoughtfully crafted program. In the second half, high-spirited showmanship pushed the presentation beyond mere musical excellence, stressing the material’s original dramatic context.
The first half began with a set of pieces by William Byrd which introduced us to the four countertenors individually. These “falsetto” voices displayed distinct qualities. Jonathan May struck a balance between velvety and bright; Patrick Dailey mingled nuanced softness with exceptional clarity. Wei En Chan and Biraj Barkakaty dueted with spirited expressivity in the jolly “Who Made Thee, Hob.”
Next, a Henry Purcell set opened with a highlight of the concert, “Sing, Sing Ye Druids.” This 1695 piece, from an adaptation of the Beaumont and Fletcher drama Bonduca, is scored for two voices (here Chan and May), viols, harpsichord, and – a lovely surprise – two recorders. Three of the singers then dexterously joined forces to evoke the brassiness of the titular instrument in “Sound the Trumpet.”
After the viols gave the singers a break by leaning into a tight performance of Purcell’s “Fantasy à 4,” the first half closed with a short but stunning performance by the evening’s Guest Young Artist, Iván Maria Feliciano. Singing the Sorceress Scene from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, this young artist already displayed the assurance of an operatic showman together with an amazing bright sound – the voice of a star-in-the-making.
Music as Storytelling
The second half took up wholeheartedly the theme of music as storytelling. Dailey drew the evening’s most exuberant audience response with the famous “Ombra Mai Fu” from Händel’s Serse, levying great power, expressivity and control to act rather than merely sing the aria. That fed into the program’s dramatic climax, Francesco Cavalli’s “Our Ti Stringo,” which brought together all four countertenors. Finishing with great sweetness, Monteverdi’s “Pur Ti Miro” featured Chan and May embracing beautifully entwined vocal lines.
A striking contemporary piece for viols and countertenors by Trevor Weston, “O Maria,” incorporated ancient musical themes into a sharply modernistic score. Insistent dissonances and unexpected harmonies clashed with the rest of the concert, the traditional modes of centuries ago. But the piece was long enough and full of enough drama of its own to create its own sonic world. It’s fascinating to hear challenging modern music played on ancient, out-of-fashion instruments and sung by voices most often heard in equally ancient music.
An electrifying encore featuring all four singers – “Vieni, Vieni, Himeneo” by Andrea Gabrieli – was a fitting finish to a celebration of the countertenor voice in a concert that showed how “diversity” can be more than just a word. The early music scene remains strong in the United States and will only be further enriched by efforts like the Open Gates Project. Bravo.