Tuesday , April 16 2024
The Gesualdo Six, 17 February 2024, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, NYC
Image credit: Oren Hope

Concert Review (NYC): The Gesualdo Six Turn Grief Inside Out with ‘Lux Aeterna’

Last year the Gesualdo Six commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of composer William Byrd with a concert program of English motets. On Feb. 17 the British a cappella choir returned to the capacious Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square with Lux Aeterna, a more widely varied program examining the many sides of grief.

But this was no orgy of lamentation. Love, redemption, and other positive themes mingled with death and dying in the texts. And the settings, by 16th-century and contemporary composers, carried a universal message of the living power of creativity and aesthetic beauty.

Spanning the Centuries with the Gesualdo Six

Led by director and bass Owain Park, who introduces their programs in a soothing baritone with a honey-sweet accent, the Gesualdo Six construct their programs artfully. Here, settings by contemporary composers melded well with the baroque.

The singers eased into the era-hopping sequence by following up music by 16th-century Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales with the Funeral Ikos by John Tavener (1944–2013). Tavener’s easeful harmonies make him a favorite among classical and baroque concert artists and listeners – his music can be very compelling, but with little or nothing that’s jarring or challenging to the ear.

The Funeral Ikos, a setting in English of an Orthodox service performed when a priest is laid to rest, is, however, quite an interesting piece. While the Morales hailed clearly from the baroque era, the Tavener allowed us to engage with choir members’ individual voices as well as the group’s exquisite polyphony.

In a group with only six members, individual voices also often stand out during multipart singing. “In jejunio et fletu” (“In fasting and weeping”) is a Biblical setting by Thomas Tallis, who was the co-focus, with Byrd, of last year’s concert. The composition incorporates the full range of voices, from basso to countertenor, as the music ascends and descends, giving the piece a fugue-like feel.

Byrd’s “Peccanem me quotidie” (“Sinning every day”) features the extreme high countertenor range; calm breakdowns to three voices; and tense, close midrange harmonies that reflect the sinner’s “fear of death…for in hell there is no redemption. Have mercy on me, God, and save me.” To our modern ears, this strain of Byrd’s music can seem to wander about – you never know where it’s going, and that’s a part of its fascination.

Music from the Trenches

Individual vocal lines were also featured in Judith Bingham’s “Watch with me.” The lyric pointedly juxtaposes Matthew’s Biblical account of Jesus questioning his own fate with intense battlefield verse by World War One poet Wilfred Owen.

On a more positive note, if anyone’s grieving in “And there was war in heaven,” a 21st-century New Testament setting by Howard Skempton, it’s the bad guys (the “dragon” and “his angels”). With repeated shifts between major and minor, the music perhaps reflects the shifting advantage in the battle between Michael and the dragon before the ultimate victory of the Good. Dissonances fold in on themselves – resolving, but hesitantly.

Stalling Death

The Six find weirdness in the baroque canon too. Late Renaissance Portuguese composer Vincente Lusitano, in a piece that has elements of an exercise, writes rising and then falling chromatic scales, with four voices grasping and climbing up one another, gathering force, before descending similarly.

“I take thee” is a lovely poem in which Imtiaz Dharker observes that “death tries to get us / and we laugh and we stall…” That’s not a bad way to describe making and listening to music, come to think of it. The ensemble sweepingly brought out the intense figuration and chordal movement of Joanna Marsh’s setting.

For an encore they triangulated to the 19th century with the divine “Abendlied” by Josef Rheinberger. Here, as throughout the concert, the accuracy of their presentation of multipart music with (usually) just one voice per part was nearly uncanny. Unlike in a larger choir, there’s no relying on a stronger singer to carry one’s part. Everyone and every part is exposed.

The Gesualdo Six conveyed all this music with their wonted precision and balance in the big Church of St. Mary the Virgin, whose acoustics, far from blurring the sound, carried it clearly throughout. In case anyone doubted that this would be the case, they sang the first two pieces from the rear of the church. Without seeing them, it was quite possible to imagine the music coming from an unearthly source. But it’s with their entirely human voices, always smoothly modulated and in thoughtfully programmed concerts, that they carry the bright torch of baroque choral music – and beyond.

The Gesualdo Six mark their 10th anniversary in March 2014. Their concert schedule is on their website, where their six albums are available for purchase. This program is on their 2022 Hyperion album Lux Aeterna.

Lux Aeterna was presented by Miller Theatre of Columbia University School of the Arts.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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