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Classical music review: New York Polyphony delivers a fine-tuned, sophisticated show in Dallas Chamber Music series

12.14.10
New York Polyphony
Dallas News

BY SCOTT CANTRELL

The male vocal quartet New York Polyphony was a break with the instrumental traditions of the Dallas Chamber Music series. But, appearing Monday night at Caruth Auditorium, countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Geoffrey Silver, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips supplied performances as fine-tuned and sophisticated as, well, a string quartet's.


The program was an odd one for 12 days before Christmas. The second half, with the guys sporting red ties, was devoted to Christmas music. But the concert opened - dark ties here - with hand-wringing renaissance fare, in tightly wound counterpoint: Josquin Desprez' setting of King David's lament for his son Absalom and Thomas Crecquillon's of the death-and-destruction Lamentations of Jeremiah.

Gregory Brown's Abschied vom Leser, setting a Friedrich von Schiller tribute to the Muse, seemed willfully awkward. And a group best at early and modern music was less convincing - and, surprisingly, less fine-tuned - in Schubert's Op. 17 Four Songs for men's voices.

Fourteenth- and 21st-century settings of "Ma fin est mon commencement" were deftly paired: Guillaume de Machaut's dancing, sometimes jerkily; Jackson Hill's more flowing, undulant, but with harmonic surprises. In the concert's second half, prizes included settings by Andrew Smith (born 1970) of the Christmas hymn "Veni redemptor gentium" and the Marian "Ave maris stella." The texts' original plainsong melodies framed harmonizations alternately stark and saturated.

The group slimmed down to the three lowest voices for carols from the 14th and 15th centuries, and to a mere baritone and bass for a 15th-century "Lullay, lullow."

The singing was never less than beautiful and sensitive to the rise and fall of phrases and crunches of harmony. Only in the encore, though, a Vaughan Williams arrangement of "I saw three ships," did the dynamic range venture beyond mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte. And the words wanted consonants projected, not swallowed.

With all but the front set of Caruth's acoustical louvers closed in the first half, the sound was a bit dry and muted. Closing that last set of louvers after intermission made a surprising improvement, yielding new clarity, presence and ring.