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Dallas Morning News fetes area debut

Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News (27 February, 2017)

Anyone thinking of renaissance music as arcane, stuffy,  or even naive  might have been astonished at the Sunday afternoon concert by the superb British choral ensemble Stile Antico. At the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, this top-notch chamber choir mainly sampled works by British and continental European composers whose lives spanned the years 1500 to 1656.

This was music, mostly sacred, of sometimes intense drama and often elaborate contrapuntal sophistication. Even two 21st-century works by English composers, pushing envelopes of modern dissonance, transformed some 400-year-old concepts of texture and expressive gesture.

English music predominated. The most amazing of the old selections was “Sleep, fleshly birth,” a memorial motet by Robert Ramsey (1590-1644).  The musical word painting included bitter chromatic progressions at the words “doleful obit” and eerily flowing lines at “make marble melt with weeping.”

Vocal parts interwove and bounced off one another in “Vigilate,” by Ramsey’s slightly older contemporary William Byrd. The Gloria from Thomas Tallis’ “Puer natus est” Mass favored slower moving but richly sonorous harmonies. Orlando Gibbons’ “O clap your hands” fairly danced as well as sang. Each of the 12 singers had a separate line to him- or herself in Thomas Tomkins’ “O praise the Lord.”

Two continental settings of texts from the Bible’s Song of Songs contrasted a decided secular, even earthy conception (Sebastian de Vivanco) with sublime reverence (Jacobus Clemens non Papa).

Of the two recent works, the truly gripping one was the late John McCabe’s “Woefully arrayed.” Setting an anonymous 14th-century text visualizing Jesus on the cross, this was chills-down-the-back stuff.

The words “woefully arrayed” first sounded like the hammering of nails into the cross. The music went all angular and flailing at “unkindly, harshly treated, with whips sore fretted,” then was stripped down for “Thus naked am I nailed.”

Huw Watkins’ setting of Shakespeare’s elusive poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” relied so much on busily chattering overlays that it was hard to keep up with the words.  But there was a striking, and apt, shift of tone at the words “Beauty, truth, and rarity.” Memorial sentiments were expressed in more sober music, though still colored by piquant harmonies.

The modern pieces, with their complex harmonies and dissonant crunches, called for almost superhuman accuracy in tuning, and, performing without a conductor, these 12 expert singers delivered. This was bold, upfront singing, with no vibrato for hiding any imprecision, but modulated with great expressivity. Vocal lines and their interplays in the earlier works were elegantly shaped and balanced. Harmonic subtleties became living things.

In the absence of program notes, individual singers gave useful and charming–if inadequately amplified–introductions to the pieces.