The New York Polyphony acapella group gave a simply dazzling performance Friday night at First Presbyterian Church. To give some backstory, the group made up of countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips are a male classical vocal quartet based, of course, out of New York City. They usually perform music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, along with some contemporary renditions. New York Polyphony has shown an obligation to modern music and works by living songwriters. The vocal chamber ensemble regularly collides with musicians working in different mediums including Korean-American composer, vocalist and sonic surrealist Bora Yoon on her album released in 2014, “Sunken Cathedral.” NY Polyphony has toured internationally across the United States and in Europe.
On Friday night they chose the ornate and lavish First Presbyterian near downtown Greensboro as a venue. They called this performance “EndBeginning”. It consisted of a seven song show, that included “Tu pauperum refugium” by Josquin des Prez, Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance. The show also included Lamentations of Jeremiah, this rendition by Thomas Crecquillon, “Pater noster,” more commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer; this rendition composed by Adrian Willaert. Works such as “Absalon fili mi,” attributed to Pierre de la Rue, “In Paradisum” and “Missa pro defunctis,” composed by Antoine Brumel, also appeared on the program. “Libera me, Domine” was written Crecquillon, a composer from the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, and was considered a member of the Franco-Flemish school. As one could assume, each song was sung in Latin, with English translations given in the programs handed out at the door.
The music performed, being from Franco-Flemish composers living in the top half of the sixteenth century, can sound rather dreary, until one realizes just what a grotesquely brutal and uncertain period it was. An era plagued by combat, expulsion on the grounds of religion, scarcity of food and widespread illness.
As the lyrics of the poignant work ascribed to Josquin Desprez included in the show, “Absalon Fili Mi,” a charmingly bleak sonic landscape of Biblical fathers grieving for their dead sons, puts it: “I shall live no longer, bid descend weeping into hell.” Not unlike the Old Testament of the Bible, this era of music was stern and full of fire and brimstone. The first song that they performed, “Tu pauperum refugium,” says, “And now, Redeemer, Lord, in thee alone I take refuge; thee, true God, I adore, in thee I hope, in thee I confide, my salvation, Oh Jesus Christ. Help me, lest my soul ever sleep in death.” That set a tone for the rest of the concert the matched the ambiance of the austere sanctuary that I and roughly sixty other were seated in.
Lamentations of Jeremiah was split into four verses titled Vau, Zain, Lamed, and Mem. The song tells the tale of the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a dark and haunting song. All the songs, like “Pater noster,” a revered Christian prayer originally taken down in Biblical Greek. According to the New Testament, it was taught by Jesus to his followers, hold that same ominous, yet sacred tone. “In paradisum” is a plainsong, a purposefully monotone song, made up of a single, isolated melodic line. Its rhythm is generally more unencumbered than the metered rhythm of later music of the Western world. In funeral masses, this plainsong is sung in procession on the way from the funeral service in the church to the graveyard where laying of the body takes place.
“Missa pro defunctis,” the longest song performed on Friday, is a composition for four voices by the late Antoine Brumel, a French Renaissance composer. It literally translates to A Mass for the Dead. In short, it’s long song used during a funeral when the body is being committed to the earth.
I found the quartet’s performance to be enjoyable. It had a gloomy, yet lively feeling to it. The quality of the concert was helped by its physical environment, as the serious and spiritual surroundings of the sanctuary gave the performance much more substance. I am unsure as to when New York Polyphony will return to North Carolina, but I advise anyone with a yearning for some skilled singing and free time to make an effort to experience them.