Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco Performances presented the San Francisco debut of the a cappella vocal quartet New York Polyphony. This was the second concert in the new Hear Now and Then Series and the only one of the four events being presented that honors the full scope of the series’ name. The program was based on Sing Thee Nowell, a recording that New York Polyphony made on BIS in 2014 with a repertoire that spans seven centuries of Christmas music. Two of the members of the quartet were also contributing composers, countertenor Geoffrey Williams and bass Craig Phillips, who publishes under the pseudonym Alexander Craig. The other vocalists were tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert.
Craig Phillips, Geoffrey Williams, Christopher Dylan Herbert, and Steven Caldicott Wilson of New York Polyphony (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)
Considering that the entire program lasted only a little more than an hour (with no intermission), the breadth of the selections was highly impressive. The ensemble’s commitment to polyphony served them well in their approach to Philippe Verdelot’s sixteenth-century motet “Gabriel archangelus;” but their intonation was just as solid in taking on those wild dissonances that have almost attainted the status of familiar idioms in recent choral writing. Nevertheless, this was definitely a “now and then” concert; and, while the program was not structured to plot the advance of music history, the group’s efforts to present selections (mostly unfamiliar) to occupy the space between the extremes was strikingly impressive.
Take, as a particularly apposite case in point, the decision to represent the nineteenth century with a song by Camille Saint-Saëns, “Serenade d’hiver.” Strictly speaking, this is an account of a serenade sung during one of the winter months by four men in masks wooing the same woman. Both the text and its delivery were delightfully comic, making the case that Saint-Saëns had a sense of humor that reached further than his “The Carnival of the Animals.” The New York Polyphony vocalists clearly appreciated that humor and knew just the right way to engage it without overplaying it.
Equally effective was the choice of Peter Maxwell Davies as a representative of the twentieth century. Scored only for countertenor and tenor, “The fader of heven” is polyphony at the most fundamental level of point-against-point counterpoint. However, Davies was as bold in his use of dissonance as he was when writing for much larger ensembles. Nevertheless, when delivered with only two voices, those dissonances have a much starker bare-bones quality, which uncompromisingly establishes the darkness of the world in which the miracle of the Nativity took place.
The overall result was a Christmas concert in which the familiar was kept to a minimum. Indeed, even when the tune or the words were familiar, the arrangement made the listening a journey of discovery. The really familiar only showed up in the encore with Richard Rodney Bennett’s four-part arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which could not have been more traditional. After a full meal of exotic delights, a recognizable dessert definitely seemed in order!