Voices Of Stile Antico Tap Into Deep Roots Of Evergreen Renaissance

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The British vocal ensemble Stile Antico performed at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. (Photos by Rob Davidson)

NEW YORK — The term “early music” should not bring anything specific to mind. As soon as people knew they could sing or plunk on something, there has been music. What is thought of as early music evolved over a longer time span than the Baroque or Romantic periods. And before them the Renaissance, the focus of a satisfying program of chansons, madrigals and sacred music on Feb. 19.

A large masked audience at Columbia University’s Miller Theater appeared to find deep and joyful comfort in the performance by Stile Antico, a 12-voice unaccompanied English group that tours Europe and has been coming to the United States since 2009.

The trick in presenting this particular genre is to find a theme and order for the program that is clear and appealing to listeners 600 years later. Stile Antico met this challenge elegantly, naming the program “Toward the Dawn” and dividing it into parts called “Evening,” “Nightfall,” and “Dawn.” Pale blue backlighting for John Wilbye’s opening “Draw on, Sweet Night” morphed to yellow for John Taverner’s “Ave Dei Patris filia,” the final sunlit praise to the Virgin.

Singing mostly pieces in Latin, sprinkled with pieces in French, English, and Italian, the group stood in a crescent shape of varied sizes, depending on the number of singers. They shifted positions to create different vocal blends, and for some pieces, soloists stood apart, at times, in front on the side.

Singing mostly pieces in Latin, sprinkled with settings in French, English, and Italian, the group stood in a crescent shape of varied sizes, depending on the number of singers. 

Wilbye’s “Draw on, Sweet Night” and John Ward’s “Come, Sable Night,” required the blend of tone the ensemble exhibited, right to the final chord’s beautifully tuned third. In general, Stile Antico’s sound was on the reserved side — rather than hearty — except for William Byrd’s colorful “Vigilate,” the buzzy, bouncy Biblical text where Zion is instructed to be on alert all night because her bridegroom might appear at any moment. The dusk-till-dawn motif allowed room for swings to intimate text, including “Often, in place of your mouth, With a sigh I kiss the pillow.”

A highlight of the program, as it is of many of this type, was Gregorio Allegri’s somewhat well known “Miserere.” This is the one, church singers know, where the soprano sings a high note in the refrain and then, amazingly, takes another leap up to high C. That memorable, shocking note, which recurs several times, is not in Allegri’s original setting of Psalm 51, which was composed for the Tenebrae service in the Sistine Chapel.

The Vatican forbade copying, but it was still done off the books, so to speak, and mistakes crept in, pepping up the alternating choral confessions and prayers. One commentator on YouTube called the most popular version “post-Mahler.” Stile Antico’s soprano twins, Helen and Kate Ashby, took turns offstage with the high note, Miller Theater director Melissa Smey explained later.   

A quintet of singers from Stile Antico performing at the Miller Theatre.

Nico Muhly composed “Gentle Sleep,” the only contemporary piece on the program. Never one to run from a challenge, Muhly set a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II, in which Henry bemoans loss of sleep. (Muhly later complained that setting Shakespeare is near impossible, and compared it to an act of vandalism.)

Muhly’s enormously creative proclivities encompass everything from the full arc of Anglican ritual to his Metropolitan Opera commission. In “Gentle Sleep,” a madrigal of vaguely dissonant beauty, voices pierce the texture and the rocking phrases. With Muhly around, the Renaissance tradition is (sort of) safe.

At the end of the intermissionless program, there were cheers and more cheers. Masks and all, people were glad to be back for this hi-falutin concert.