Less than a year ago (November, 2013) I had the opportunity to hear the outstanding male vocal quartet New York Polyphony perform a stimulating, eclectic program at the La Jolla Athenaeum. Their Friday (October 3) concert of Spanish Renaissance sacred music at La Jolla’s St. James-by-the-Sea Epsicopal Church confirmed both their vocal virtuosity and musical insight.
What struck me about this ensemble’s approach performing this music, which is grounded in the austerity of religious ritual, is their sophisticated fusion of inviting, intimate welcome to the listener and a keen sense of the music’s spiritual depth.
They built their program around Tomás Luis de Victoria’s magnificent Mass “O Quam Gloriosam,” separating its individual movements with motets and canticles by other composers of the period. In the “Gloria,” their exultant voices clearly proclaimed the laudation of the text, undergirded by confident, virile cadences. Their “Credo” emphasized its inherent drama and illuminated its text painting with subtle dynamic shifts and emphatic declamation, while they treated the sustained, sinuous lines of the “Agnus Dei” as a gentle lullaby.
Motets by Francisco Guerrero, a generation earlier than Victoria, countered passion to Victoria’s elegant structures, especially in his ardent setting of”Quae est ista” from the Song of Solomon. From music surviving the cathedral libraries of Mexico and Central American countries, Guerrero’s sacred music was the most popular in the Western Hemisphere during the colonial period.
The question of how sacred music of the Renaissance should sound cannot be unequivocally deduced from historical sources, and much of what passed for “authentic” approaches by 20th-century performing choirs and ensembles was simply invented out of thin air by various revivals of the late 19th century. So it is healthy that we now enjoy a variety of approaches, including New York Polyphony’s more richly colored one voice to a part style as well as those ubiquitous straight-toned 60-voice touring college choirs. Given the typical social temperament found on the Iberian peninsula, I would put my betting money on New York Polyphony in terms of congruence to national character.
Although this concert was sponsored by the San Diego Early Music Society, New York Polyphony appended a coda of more contemporary music to their Renaissance offerings. A selection of pieces from the group’s recently completed Christmas CD on the Bis label, “Sing Thee Nowell,” included new settings of late medieval texts “Adam Lay Ybounden” and “There Is No Rose” by the group’s countertenor Geoffrey Williams, as well as “Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle” and “Sleep Now,” by bass Craig Phillips. Set to a text by James Joyce, “Sleep Now” demonstrated the most inventive use of close harmonies to interpret this sophisticated text.