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A near-capacity audience at Duke Chapel was transported to 16th century England for an evening of sublime polyphonic choral music performed by the young ensemble Stile Antico. At times dazzling, at times mesmerizing, and always stunningly beautiful, the performance by this group of 12 singers showed consummate skill and musicianship with a blend of voices that was seamless.
All the best-known Tudor composers were represented (Byrd, Tallis, Sheppard, Mundy and Tye), along with one not quite as well known from the same period (Robert White) and a well-known composer from a few generations earlier (John Taverner). The music was mostly in Latin, but a few English language pieces were included, including a gorgeous version of The Lord’s Prayer by Sheppard and Tye’s “Nunc Dimittis.”
The theme of the program was “Music for Compline,” with compositions that were associated with the final monastic service of the day. No jolly madrigals here; instead, the music was generally low-key, but with intricately-scored vocal lines, close harmonies, references to plainsong chant and the occasional soaring treble (soprano) voice. And every note, every harmony was delivered with clarity, even in the cavernous space of Duke Chapel.
Several aspects of the program are worthy of particular attention. One of the first is the fact that the 12 singers – three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and three bass-baritones – sang as one voice in their respective part. From midway back in the chapel, one could not see the singers, and some vocal lines often sounded as if coming from a soloist, when in fact, all three singers in a particular part were singing in unison. Instead of being sung by an SATB quartet, the music was actually sung by eight, nine or 12 singers. In Sheppard’s “Libera" Nos I and II, for example, one’s first impression was that a tenor or alto was singing alone over the other voices, but the sound was coming from a trio of voices. Some choral directors call this “locking in” voices to produce a unified sound; Stile Antico demonstrates exquisitely how this is done. And the sound of the voices themselves – almost identical in tone and timbre – was remarkable, with hardly any one voice standing out among the others. The singers displayed both youthful purity and seasoned maturity that enhanced the performance greatly.
Another noteworthy aspect is what seemed to be the effortlessness with which the singers performed the music. The final work on the program, “Ave Dei Patris Filia” by John Taverner, is a relatively lengthy piece that contains several stunningly long melismas throughout, ones that seemed to stretch over many measures, and the singers never sounded forced and never lost pitch, up to and including the final “Amen,” in which the first syllable carried over dozens of notes.
The singers also maintained pure straight-tone singing for the entire concert, particularly the women. Some might like to hear singers use vibrato as a way to add extra color or ornamentation, but this music required more unadorned singing, and in doing so, Stile Antico brought a sense of musical discipline to the presentation. The result was not in the least boring; in fact, the unadorned singing helped the audience get right to the core of the music.
The program was a continuous string of highlights, a testament to both the composers and the performers. White’s “Christe Qui Lux Es et Dies IV” and Tallis’ “Te Lucis ante Terminum” alternated between plainsong and polyphony, creating an interesting contrast between the simple and the complex. Some especially beautiful choral lines were in the “Gloria Patri” section of Tallis’ “In Pace in Idipsum” and the “ad revelationes” portion of Byrd’s “Nunc Dimittis.” Similarly beautiful lines were in the “Gloria Patri” section of Tye’s “Nunc Dimittis.” The staggered entrances in several pieces were well executed, and some of the harmonies in the cascading moving lines were simply splendid.
Duke Performances has devised a winning formula by creating a vocal ensemble subset of guest artists as part of its performing arts series, and this year’s lineup of Anonymous 4, Vox Luminis, New York Polyphony, Stile Antico and I Fagiolini (coming in late April) has proved to be quite popular. Duke Chapel, of course, is quite the appropriate setting for such programs, and although the chapel will be out of commission for a year for renovations, a similar schedule of guest choral ensembles in 2015-16 will be welcome indeed.