Preview: New York Polyphony adds a modern flair to old music

12.11.14
New York Polyphony
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Elizabeth Bloom 

To say that New York Polyphony sings early music, and does so quite well, is to minimize the group's larger mission.

The Grammy-nominated vocal quartet is as concerned with historically informed performance as with informing modern audiences about historical works. Bass Craig Phillips sees the ensemble as ambassadors for this music, as its salespeople.

"We're really passionate about updating this music for modern classical consumers," he said.

Having sung in 34 states and 13 countries, New York Polyphony makes its Pittsburgh debut Saturday in a concert presented by Renaissance and Baroque. The Christmas-themed program, titled "Wondrous birth, O wondrous child," is based on its most recent album, "Sing thee Nowell," for which the group received its second Grammy nomination last week.

Speaking of debuts, the singers often give the first local performances of rare pieces, whether composed a millennium ago or a year ago. They specialize in pre-Baroque music but seek to find connections with new music that they commission, conceive of or compose themselves. Saturday's program spans a period from the ninth century to the present day, including a contemporary arrangement by Andrew Smith of a Gregorian melody and works by Victoria and Clemens non Papa.

The ensemble -- countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and Mr. Phillips -- works closely with living composers who graft modern harmonies onto ancient texts, reimagine or reinterpret those texts, or use early compositional techniques like contrapuntal writing.

"We are trying to find a way of building bridges to the old repertoire," said Mr. Phillips, "and we feel it's kind of our duty to be responsible contributors to these traditions."

Among their many collaborators are Ivan Moody, who draws on Eastern Orthodox musical traditions; Gregory W. Brown, who composed a Mass based on the writings of Charles Darwin; and Gabriel Jackson, whom Mr. Phillips characterized as a neo-medievalist. The audience can lose track of what's new and what's old. "To modern ears, a lot of this early music feels really now."

Mr. Phillips believes this music should be incorporated into the chamber music canon. They're more like a "vocal string quartet" that seeks to retain the individual characters of their voices than a choir that emphasizes blend.

The singers are active on YouTube and social media ("If you Tweet at us [@nypolyphony], we will Tweet you back"); they "hard-core research" the music and pride themselves on discussing it with audiences. "We don't want this to be like they're going to a very air-conditioned museum and seeing something in a case on a wall," he said.

"This is something that we really love, and we're youngish guys," said Mr. Phillips, who, at 43, is the oldest member of the group. "There doesn't need to be such a button-up, starched approach to this. This is passionate music." But don't worry: "There's no twerking in our show."

Unwrapping the modern packaging yields music that speaks for itself. In a world barraged by Auto-Tune, the raw, unamplified voice is a return to something elemental, something human, he said.

"There's no production to what we do. It's really just four guys singing in an acoustic space unaccompanied music," he said. "It's just our naked voices."