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The Vancouver Sun at the Chan Centre

David Gordon Duke, Vancouver Sun (16 April, 2013)

A top British vocal ensemble of young singers made a welcome return visit to the Chan Centre Friday evening under the auspices of Early Music Vancouver. Stile Antico is the latest thing in the long. distinguished tradition of British vocal music: the group specializes in historically informed performance of Renaissance polyphony, but makes women’s voices an integral—some might even go so far as to say long overdue—part of the mix.

The gap between choral cultures here and in the UK couldn’t have been made more clear by the program concept: an anthology of smallish Easter-time works by disparate composers, all (save one contemporary example written especially for the group) from the 16th century. This was focused, thoughtful programming which, frankly, made significant demands on listeners. But how worthwhile it proved! Working within a common musical lingua franca, Flemish, English, and Spanish composers demonstrated unmistakable, utterly distinctive ways of handling sonority, counterpoint, and text. Stile Antico is capable of great nuance, emphasis, and expression, and they go straight to the heart of each concentrated musical experience.

In an evening of consistently magnificent music-making, two Spanish works by Victoria and Morales showed me an impassioned side of the group I’d otherwise not encountered when I heard them last. Flashier works by Gibbons and Lassus, and a concluding exuberant showpiece by William Byrd, were delivered with remarkable power and precision, exquisite style, and total confidence.

The program’s one anomaly was a 2009 setting by British master John McCabe of “Woefully arrayed,” an odd text (rather uncertainly attributed to John Skelton) which also set by William Cornysh, and the first work on the program. This is not pretty choral kitch designed to pander to lazy audiences: the writing is as harsh and visceral as its painful and uncompromising text. McCabe has created an impressive work whose harrowing changes in texture and articulation underscore deep ideas.

Impressive in a casual, even slightly sentimental way was the single, perfectly considered encore: Campion’s pristine “Never weather-beaten sail,”—simple music created with elegant restraint. Obviously child’s play to perform in comparison to the rest of the evening’s playlist, it was sung with nonchalant, totally winning fervor.