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Live Performances

St Louis Post-Dispatch fetes Stile Antico’s local debut

Sarah Bryan Millar, St Louis Post-Dispatch (15 April, 2012)

The real test of musicians whose work you’ve loved on recordings is whether they sound as good in person. Some do; some don’t; some lip-synch. On Friday night, presented by Cathedral Concerts, Stile Antico passed that test with a perfectly exquisite performance.

The conductorless 12-voice a cappella British choral ensemble — six women, six men — arranged themselves in a semi-circle in mixed quartets for most of their program. One particular pleasure of hearing them perform live is the experience of watching them at work. The essence of good choral singing is to pay attention to what one’s colleagues are doing and adjust to blend with them. Stile Antico’s members watch and listen to each other, communicating nonverbally to constantly tweak the sound and tempos.

The supremely resonant acoustic of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis made them take some of those tempos at a more stately pace than in a smaller hall, but the energy level remained high, and the music never felt slow. The biggest issue, in fact, lay with the audience, so enthusiastic that the last notes were never allowed to die away before the applause began.

Stile Antico’s specialty is music of the Renaissance and the intertwining vocal lines of polyphony. Their program, “Treasures of the Renaissance: Masterpieces from the golden age of choral music,” offered a fine sampling of the era’s possibilities in different styles and moods, some somber, some lively. Most of the texts were biblical. That, however, included several passages from the decidedly secular, frequently erotic Song of Songs, in musical settings both chaste and suggestive.

The exception to the early music rule was a work composed for Stile Antico, “Woefully arrayed,” by British composer John McCabe (b. 1939). A setting of an anonymous 14th-century Good Friday text, it was perfectly designed for the ensemble’s vocal and musical talents, and added a touch of contemporary edge to the evening.

In a near-perfect program like this one, it’s hard to pick out highlights; the music was all gorgeous. (Some fatigue evidenced itself near the end with a couple of imperfect entrances.) They saved one of the best pieces for last, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of “O Magnum Mysterium,” exquisitely sung.

In a near-perfect ensemble like this one, it’s hard to pick out particular singers for notice. The sad fact for altos, tenors and basses, however, is that however well they sing — and these are wonderful — if the sopranos aren’t good, the lower voices are likely to go unnoticed. The sopranos — twins Helen and Kate Ashby and Rebecca Hickey — are incredibly good. Here’s hoping that Cathedral Concerts will bring them all back. ()