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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Concert Review: Look, No Hands!

New York Polyphony closes out the 92nd St Y season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Geoffrey Williams, Steven Caldicott Wilson, Christopher Dylan Herbert and Craig Philips: New York Polyphony.
Photo from the artists' website.
The 92nd St. Y ended its music programming for the current and rapidly fading season last Friday, with a concert featuring the men of New York Polyphony in what the singers: Geoffrey Williams, Steven Caldicott Wilson, Christopher Dylan Herbert and Craig Philips, referred to as a rare hometown show.



Polyphonic singing goes back to the Paris compositional schools of the Medieval period, but has become something of a lost and overlooked art. These four gentlemen specialize in male part-singing, and a wide span of repertory, dating back to the French composer Orlande de Lassus, up through the Romantic era and works by contemporary composers as well.

The concert, held upstairs at the Y's Buttenweiser Hall, opened with one of these: the British composer Richard Rodney Bennett. Bennett, who is best remembered for an excellent opera (The Mines of Sulfur) and for writing the score to the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express, wrote "A Colloquy with God" for these four singers, and their performance of it showed why they merited such a commission.

Mr. Williams' light, clear countertenor soared with errant dives above the other voices, joining them as they supported him in flight. Indeed, one had the sense of four voices as a single, efficient instrument, combining to create intervals and chords of sung sound that bewitched the ear. This was heard to dazzling effect in Liebe the first of several works by Schubert that dotted the program.

Next up was a very unusual work by the usually dour Johnannes Brahms, the powerful if atypical "Ich schwing mein Horn ins Jammertal," an early example of the composer's vocal writing. This is a far cry from the post-Beethoven heaven-storming classicist. Even odder was the long song by Saint-Saëns that followed. "Serénade d'hiver" was a tale of a maiden serenaded by mysterious men in black masks, a chanson written with arch elegance and a perfection of form.

Next came the first of a set of selections by Ivan Moody, a composer whose Canticum Cantorum I and II were written in the 1990s but looks eep into the musical past. In their rigorous scholarship and archaic form there was a kinship with the writings of Carl Orff without the slathering of percussion and orchestration that often drowns out the music itself. The singers then offered Gregory Brown's "Abscheid vom Leser", an evocative setting of a Schiller text.

The concert ended in English, with a set of three part-songhs. These were by Gerald Finzi ("Thou Didst Delight My Eyes") Joseph Barnby ("Sweet and Low" and Sir Arthur Sullivan. His "The Long Day Closes" may also serve as a fitting epigraph to the winding down days of what has been a long and tiring classical music season. Thanks to the gentlemen of New York Polyphony, it is ending on a sweet note.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.