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New York Polyphony

December 2, 2013

Recently the Orlando Consort gave a concert in New York for Miller Theatre at a familiar haunt to us all: the Church of Mary the Virgin on 46th St, colloquially known to one and all as Smoky Mary’s. It got a great review in the New York Times, always a boon, but perhaps the most warming thing – after the hospitality of Melissa Smey – was that three of the four-voice group New York Polyphony were there. Of course, that was frightening too; no performer likes to perform for another performer. But it was heartening more than anything, the more so because few Brit singers show other groups similar respect in attending other groups’ concerts.

Give or take a few snobbish and competitive musical directors, this is less about a failure of collegiality than it is about busy diaries and laziness. A Saturday night, should one ever be free, is likely to be spent with the otherwise abandoned partner and kids, perhaps in front of Strictly Come Dancing or, if the kids allow it, a decent HBO boxed set. But in general we performers tend to learn of other groups through word of mouth rather than through direct experience, though there are always exceptions.

New York Polyphony were known to me. They’ve been on the scene for a little while now and I’ve heard very good things from promoters and agents alike. I’d never, though, been to one of their performances or bought a CD, only viewed them on YouTube where I had admired their fluid movements and refined voices. Their performance is interesting to me in that I doubt  you would get many British groups feeling confident and selfless enough to allow others to indicate the shape of both individual lines and group motion. Perhaps it’s British restraint, perhaps it’s the fact taht NYP have been friends for a while now (rather than thrust together as colleagues), but if you indicate anything other than an agreed tempo then the suspicion is that one is trying to grasp the directorial reins rather than allow a collective dynamic to emerge. I know that certain groups (not the Orlandos) have had members refuse to take the stage for such ‘crimes’.

Anyway, NYP kindly offered to send me a couple of CDs, which duly arrived. This weekend, on the way to some gigs, I got the chance to listen to them. And loved them. The line-up is four male voices ranging from countertenor at the top, though Tenor and Baritone to Bass. The quality of the voices is uniformly excellent and the rich sonority of Craig Phillips’ bass voice is a particular treat to someone like me: a wimpy baritone. They know the music well and perform it with conviction and understanding. Particularly impressive are the graded dynamics and their co-ordinated moves from a tiptoeing piano to a resonant forte. The vowels are brightly Italian which offers a clarity to the complex polyphony.

The programming is interesting as well, showing an intelligent juxtaposition of old and new. Times go by Turns, their fourth album, offers three masses: Byrd Four (as it’s known), the Tallis four-part mass, and one that’s unfamiliar to me: Plummer’s Missa Sine Nomine, which I look forward to getting to know better. Interleaved with these early-music compositions are commissions by Richard Rodney Bennett (what an honour that is!) and Gabriel Jackson, a fine British composer who knows voices and choirs better than anyone else around.

endBeginning, their first album for Bis, with a very 80s title if I may say so, follows the same successful pattern, ending with a piece written by Jackson Hill modelled on Machaut’s Ma fin est mon commencement. (Minor gripe: it would have been great to hear the group perform that piece alongside the Hill). The album also features a gorgeous Requiem mass by Brumel, and Crequillon’s Lamentations. I know the former, but not the latter and I’m glad to have the chance to acquaint myself with it. There’s also some nifty parallel organum thrown in for good measure. Good for NYP for highlighting a possible way in which plainsong may have been performed even in the C15th. Oh, and they also give us Absalon fili mi by Josquin or De La Rue, or perhaps someone else, a piece which might have been written for them. (I love the fact that the Josquin scholars reject such a fantastic piece, and then the De La Rue scholars come along and say their man didn’t write it either. Crikey, I’ll take the credit if no-one wants it.)

Add to this their obvious marketing skills, smart dressing and generosity and you’ve got the perfect group. And they’re American! I say this not because they’re the first to do it – think of Anonymous Four, amongst others – but because it’s fantastic to see a group emerging from the American scene that gives British groups obvious reason to look nervously across the pond in much the same way that British brewers have found the need to respond to the American microbrew revolution. We’ve had it our own way for too long and I hope that our reviewers are as complimentary as many American reviewers were about us back in the 80s.

They’re at the Wigmore Hall in June and I’ll be going; I advise anyone else to do the same. And buy yourself a CD for Xmas. I guess I should be urging everyone to buy the new Orlando Consort Machaut recording, so buy both.

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