The program for this Saturday night was New York Polyphony, making their Wisconsin debut and first appearance at MEMF. Their concert of English sacred music was preceded by the lecture “That the Congregation May Be Thereby Edified,” by Professor J. Michael Allsen, which set the context of the religious shifts that took place during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VII, Mary, and Elizabeth I. England had always had its own tradition of sacred music, most of which was lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and cleared the way for new works.
New York Polyphony is made up of four male singers: Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass. They are currently one of the most highly regarded classical music vocal groups, and, having heard them, it’s easy to tell why. They have very pure tones, extremely precise elocution, and pitches that are spot-on.
Their concert, called “Tudor City,” after their 2010 album, included two masses. After “Ave Maria Mater Dei,” by Willam Cornysh, they began the Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd, which Professor Allsen called one of the most perfect examples of counterpoint extant. Inserted between the movements of the Mass were other pieces of sacred music from the Tudor and late Plantagenet period, by John Dunstable, Walter Lambe, and Thomas Tallis.
The second half of the program began with “Ave Verum Corpus,” by Byrd, and the Mass for Four Voices by Byrd’s predecessor and mentor, Thomas Tallis. Tallis’ Mass was a simpler and more austere setting, but in its way no less beautiful. Additional pieces came from John Pyamour, John Plummer, and the Worcester Fragments.
After a well-deserved standing ovation, the group favored us with an encore: a do-wop version of “Rosie the Riveter on the Assembly Line,” which showed that their mastery of more modern styles is just as great as that of the ancient music.
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