Celebrating Love, Both Sacred and Profane

New York Polyphony
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

New York Polyphony at American Academy of Arts and Letters

The Miller Theater at Columbia University is a great hall for many things, but it is not ideally suited for the early-music programming that it has long taken as a mandate.

You might think that simply moving the performances a few yards across the campus to St. Paul’s Chapel would suffice. Miller has done that on occasion, but the hall’s administration has also made useful alliances with spaces elsewhere in town, including several churches and, lately, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which has a lovely, resonant hall that is used regularly as a recording space but too rarely for concerts.

Miller presented New York Polyphony at the academy on Sunday afternoon for “A Renaissance Valentine.” The ensemble, a young, thoroughly drilled male vocal quartet founded in 2006, split its program between sacred and profane views of love.

The sacred works, mostly drawn from the rich repertory of Latin “Song of Songs” settings, was presumably meant to acknowledge, obliquely rather than overtly, that Valentine’s Day was established (in 496) to honor St. Valentine, an early Christian martyr. Granted, Pope Paul VI removed the holiday from the church’s calendar of saints’ days in 1969. But by drawing on works composed from the 14th to 16th centuries, New York Polyphony could ignore that inconvenient reconsideration.

Actually, even the sacred part of the program had secular undercurrents. It began with a motet by Philippe de Vitry in which one voice, devoted to veneration of Mary, is juxtaposed with earthier directions about choosing a good wife.

The Vitry, with its lively rhythms and soaring countertenor line, was one of the more striking performances in the devotional part of the program. You also had to admire the clarity the singers brought to the involved counterpoint in John Pyamour’s setting of “Quam Pulchra Es” and John Clemens non Papa’s “Ego Flos Campi.”

In comments from the stage the singers described the madrigals in the second half of the program as “naughty and bawdy,” but only Lassus’s “Matona Mia Cara” (“My Lovely Lady”), which ends with some unquotable boasting about virility, really qualified. Others — Festa’s “Ogni Belta Madonna” (“Every Beauty, Lady”), Patavino’s “Dilla de l’Acqua Sta” (“There Across the Water”), Cornysh’s “Ah, Robin,” and even Purcell’s “I Gave Her Cakes” and “’Tis Women Makes Us Love” — were amorous and occasionally comic but hardly racy.

The exaggeration wasn’t necessary: These are delightful pieces, and the accomplished singers — Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass — gave them consistently spirited, carefully shaped performances. At intermission the ensemble mingled with the audience in the academy’s lobby, where the Miller Theater provided free Champagne, heart-shaped chocolates and chocolate-covered strawberries.