New York Polyphony Brings the “Missa Charles Darwin” to La Jolla

11.02.13
New York Polyphony
The San Diego Story

By Ken Herman

Sometimes you choose to attend a concert on a hunch. When I decided take in the La Jolla Athenaeum’s concert featuring New York Polyphony, it was because the publicity touted an unlikely piece entitled “Missa Charles Darwin.” Not something a critic runs across every day.

But once I heard New York Polyphony sing, I was as ecstatic as I was a number of years ago on a New York City visit when I chose to take a long subway ride to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on a freezing February day to hear an obscure Handel opera, only to discover the lead singer was the brilliant coloratura mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

New York Polyphony, a quartet of four virtuoso male singers, upturned every assumption we hold about what voices do in concert. They are unlike either a small choir or a barbershop quartet, but more like a vocal string quartet, with each voice carrying its own independent yet interlocking part. In most ensemble vocal music—choirs especially—we cherish the ideal that blends all voices into a single sonority. With New York Polyphony, the individual character of each voice, the way each singer shaped and colored a phrase gave the ensemble its vibrant vitality and its identity. Overall, their voices were beautifully balanced, but what each voice accomplished individually in performance was undeed mesmerizing.

In his “Missa Charles Darwin,” the young American composer Gregory Brown employed texts from the writings of Charles Darwin, recreating the Sunday liturgy of the Christian Church as a seven-movement a cappella work that interprets each stage of that liturgy in terms of Darwin’s scientific observations about nature and evolution. While Brown included a few texts from the actual Mass, including the entire Kyrie in Greek, a musicologist would say that, textually, Brown’s trope has overtaken the Mass.

Brown’s musical diom is striking, honoring the hallowed conventions of liturgical polyphony with consistently elegant counterpoint and energizing his spare modal textures with just enough dissonance to keep the listener’s attention engaged. In the way that Arvo Pärt’s choral music alludes to late medieval harmonic practice without falling into mere pastiche, so Brown evokes the complex counterpoint of the early Renaissance master Josquin des Prez, yet always manages to cadence in the present century.

I found the tone of Brown’s Missa to be reverent and his parallels thought-provoking. For instance, in the Sanctus, that part of the Mass that expresses profound wonder and solemnity, Brown lifted up the fecundity of the “Great Tree of Life” in a brilliant effusion of vocal fanfares. In his “Alleluia” trope, however, he intensified his harmonic dissonance to set the words, “But if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose.” This is as close to polemical as Brown ventured, although I shudder to think what the commentators on Fox News would make of a Mass reconstituted according to the precepts of science and natural selection.

As spokesman for New York Polyphony, bass Craig Phillips expressed the ensemble’s delight to be able to sing the “Missa Charles Darwin” in a library surrounded by books, a veritable temple of learning. The quartet followed the “Missa Charles Darwin” with Brown’s settings of three American Protestant hymns in austere yet textually sensitive arrangements. In festivals and music conventions over the last two decades, I have heard a surfeit of contemporary sacred music, and no composer has impressed me more than Gregory Brown. A smart publishing house should toss him a hefty retainer and sign him up to a very long contract.

Balancing Brown’s music with Thomas Tallis’ gem “Mass for Four Voices” was more than a smart programming notion. It allowed New York Polyphony to demonstrate their prowess singing Renaissance music and at the same time show how different their take on this genre is. The prevalent understanding of sacred choral music—even in most small early music ensembles—is an ascetic restraint that subsumes the individual voice and personality into the purity of the ensemble.

What made New York Polyphony’s Tallis exciting was their infusing each line with the singer’s individual color and accentuation, and their diction and intonation were nothing less than impeccable. Their textures were far livelier that what passes in most circles today as proper sacred music, even though the latter aesthetic comes from the mid-19th century and not the Renaissance! New York Polyphony’s Tallis Mass is available on their recent recording (along with the even more amazing William Byrd “Mass for Four Voices”) on the excellent Swedish label Bis (BIS – 2037).

Two contemporary works flanked the Tallis, Andrew Smith’s “Kyrie Cunctipotens Genitor Deus,” a smart, neo-medieval work written for the quartet to open the Mass, and Gabriel Jackson’s “Ite missa est” to close the Mass. More ostentatiously contemporary in style, Jackson’s congenial piece was filled with clever, animated rhythmic riffs.

I liked Countertenor Geoffrey Williams’ substantial vocal color, and its silvery edge surfed above the lower voices comfortably. Baritone Christopher Herbert struck me as the most dramatic of the singers, and his energy often drove the ensemble in a felicitous fashion. Phillips’ bass proved majestically clear even in the deepest regions—he supported New York Polyphony just as an excellent cellist udergirds every successful string quartet. I admired tenor Steven Wilson’s focus and supple phrasing, but a richer color was the only aspect that kept them from the pinnacle of sonic perfection.