Virtuoso young choral singers
From the October, 2009 issue
You may have read about the impending death of classical music, but many segments of its long tradition are actually flourishing. The music of the Renaissance era was not so long ago largely the province of cloistered graduate students. That was curious in view of the fact that people make pilgrimages to art museums to see the visual monuments of that era; the problem, to sum up broadly, was not that the music was any less compelling, but that musicians mostly hadn't learned to bring out its key features. A new generation of performers, of which the small British choir Stile Antico offers a sterling example, has taken care of that; Stile Antico recently landed atop both Billboard magazine's and Amazon.com's classical sales charts, and they're beginning to show up in series like that presented by the venerable University Musical Society.
Stile Antico (the words are Italian for "old style" and date back to a seventeenth-century term for Renaissance-style vocal music) has twelve singers, typically using three on each of four voice parts. That was probably close to the size many churches and chapels of the nobility would have used at the time, but it presents stiff challenges in terms of blend and balance. Stile Antico lays into those challenges with startling results; each line seems a shimmering thing. In Ann Arbor they'll be appearing at St. Francis of Assisi Church, perhaps the most complicated space in town acoustically and the one that holds the most promise for generating the stunning effects that unaccompanied singers can produce when they really think about the spaces they're in.
An equal attraction of Stile Antico is the group's way of putting together a program that throws into relief the features of music that may sound homogeneous to an ordinary listener. At St. Francis the choir will be presenting a program drawn from its album Heavenly Harmonies. It features music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, two sixteenth-century British composers
who each walked the required line between musically spare Anglicanism and lush Latin works for Catholic services. On the album they juxtapose Tallis's Anglican service music and Byrd's motets and Latin mass text settings. The contrasts are strikingly beautiful and keenly effective in putting the listener in the midst of the religious divisions of the time.
The UMS's inclusion of popular and world music traditions in its programming has attracted lots of attention. Less noticed has been the variety of artists within the classical tradition that the UMS has been bringing to town. The organization's ongoing reinvention, along with some gorgeous choral singing, will be on display at St. Francis on October 27.
[Originally published in October, 2009.]
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