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Stile Antico Packs the House for BEMF

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Friday evening’s appearance in Emmanuel Church marked the 10th anniversary of the British vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s first appearance in Boston. During these years, Boston Early Music Festival, has booked the ensemble almost annually. In the world of vocal early music, only legendary Tallis Scholars rivals it for popularity.

Stile Antico is often praised for immediacy, perfect intonation, and sensitive and imaginative response to texts. These qualities arise from the group’s collaborative working style: members rehearse and perform as chamber musicians, each contributing artistically to the musical results. The group is also noted for its compelling programming, which often draws out thematic connections between works to shine new light on Renaissance music. The group of 12 regularly breaks into smaller ensembles, so the texture continually varies and stays interesting. 

In 2010 I wrote, “This group of 13 British singers, who all looked younger than 30, started out by getting together to sing for fun when they were students at Cambridge and Oxford. From the beginning, they worked without a conductor, performing and rehearsing as a democratic chamber music group, responding with unusual sensitivity to texts.” Nine years later, they look much the same, but a number of groups have popped up to give them conductor-free competition, or simply competition as yet another brilliant British vocal ensemble (ORA Singers come to mind) Still, most of the groups I am thinking of lack an alluring British accent speaking about the music, and we Bostonians seem unable ever to get enough of that, and because of its many recordings, rave reviews, and the perennial support of the BEMF, Stile Antico has a large and appreciative Boston fan base. The singers caused Emanuel Church to be packed. 

Stile Antico’s program honored Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), one of the most significant lovers and patrons of the arts in British history; as one of the singers put it, “the most eligible woman of her time.” A democracy, Stile Antico let most of the singers talk. Alas, this always seems problematic. Either the acoustics don’t favor speech, or pace, and some of the singers simply don’t enunciate well. The excellent notes would have sufficed.

William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623) wrote both religious and secular music for his royal patron’s court as well as for his own recusant circle of Catholics. The concert opened with his melodious six-part madrigal “This sweet and merry month of May.” Stile Antico also performed Byrd’s five and six part “Oh lord, make thy servant Elizabeth,” adapted from Psalm 121 (with a spectacularly beautiful and peaceful Amen) and the two-part motet, “Ne irascaris, Domine” (1589) whose text from Isaiah 64 is “The city of thy sanctuary has become a desert. Sion is made desert (passed around from singer to singer), Jerusalem in desolate.”  In the Elizabethan Age, one of the favorite metaphors for the plight of British Catholic sympathizers in a Protestant regime was the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE. This plangent expression of existential discomfort was clear in the music, which Elizabeth, according to the program notes by Stile Antico, “knew a first-rate composer when she saw one, seems willing to overlook the elephant in the room.”

When I first heard this excellent ensemble in my early days of listening to early music, I was wowed by its soaring sopranos. This was in Cambridge’s St. Paul’s Church, where they will appear again next April. The Emanuel acoustics struck me as very different, not as kind to sopranos and altos as St. Paul’s. Instead, I was very impressed by the six men (Benedict Has, Ross Buddie, and Tom Kelly, tenors; James Arthus, Will Dawes, and Nathan Harrison, basses) who sang many moving and powerful solos. And what beautiful voices they had! The sopranos (Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, and Rebecca Hickey) and altos (Emma Ashby, Eleanor harries Clarke & Katie Schofield) didn’t seem to get that extra oomph that the acoustically warm Cambridge church so generously provided. Rebecca Hickey did her bit to remind me of the soaring soprano sound I love.

The Queen’s best-known court composer, Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585), the friend and teacher of William Byrd, was represented by two works from Cantiones Sacrae of 1575. Dissonances abounded, as did unexpected leading tones. Taking advantage of their monopoly on printing music, in 1575 Thomas Tallis and William Byrd produced their grandiose Cantiones sacrae, the first collection of Latin sacred motets published in England. Dedicated to the Queen herself, it offers a retrospective selection of Tallis’s own work alongside compositions from his most gifted pupil. One of the 15 works by Byrd is split into three separately numbered sections, and one of the 16 by Tallis into two, in order to bring the total to 17 motets by each composer, corresponding to the length of the Queen’s reign.

Eric XIV is one of the more interesting personalities of Elizabeth’s reign. Apparently, he was determined to win her hand, and we heard three gems from The Winchester Partbooks that he might have given to her as a token of his amorous sincerity. The three pieces by Orlande De Lassus (ca. 1532-1594), Adrian Willaert (Ca. 1490-1562) and Pierre Santin (ca. 1490- after 1560) were full of spirit, fun rhythms, and changing small mixed ensembles of singers who seemed, to these ears, more interesting and enjoyable than they were in their usual group of twelve.

Lutenist/composer John Dowland’s (1563-1626) famous “Can she excuse my wrongs,” sung by a quartet, gave us one of the great the moments of this concert. Dowland and the queen had a rather strained relationship, and it wasn’t until Elizabeth’s death in 1612 that Dowland that the took him on as titular  lutenist. Its text has been attributed to the 2nd Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, another of the queen’s many suitors. Both “Can she excuse” and the other Dowland work on the program, “Now O now I needs must part” began life as lute tunes with solo voice, but they worked beautifully in these vocal ensemble arrangements.

Three songs by Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588), who did triple duty as a musician, courtier and spy, sounded lovely, and one could understand how they might have been used as dinner entertainment. Or in today’s world, as a soundtrack for a British-themed movie. Ferrasocso, a favorite of the queen, earned an unusually excellent salary. Three selections from The Triumphs of Oriana, complied by Thomas Morley, and most probably dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, finished the concert, and inspired a ravishing encore by Jacob Clemens non Papa. (1510-1556), “Ego flos campi.” This gorgeous song appears on the ensemble’s wonderful “Song of Songs” CD. Moments like this ensure that Stile Antico wins and keeps its loyal fans.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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