Early music for vocal chamber groups is trending, and with good reason. Take New York Polyphony, the impressive quartet that performed for UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Up Close and Musical series at the Music Academy’s Hahn Hall last Wednesday. Not only do Geoffrey Williams (countertenor), Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor), Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone), and Craig Phillips (bass) have the discipline and scholarly passion to perform 16th-century music at the highest possible level, but they also have the imagination to connect that music to the 21st century in unique and compelling ways.
The concert began with a Mass for Four Voices by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was bookended with two shorter pieces, both of them written in the same musical idiom and bearing specific relations to certain aspects of that work. Andrew Smith, who wrote Kyrie: Cunctipotens Genitor Deus, was born in 1970, and Gabriel Jackson, composer of Ite Missa Est, was born in 1962. The opening set served as an extended introduction to the overall strength and memorable individuality of these men’s voices. If you’ve never heard this music sung by a quartet before, it is, at least when New York Polyphony does it, a revelation.
The group opened the second half with a remarkable work by another relatively young composer, Gregory Brown. His Missa Charles Darwin was composed for the group and was first suggested to the composer by bass Craig Phillips, who drafted the libretto from the writings of the great naturalist Charles Darwin. It was unsettling to hear, in the Kyrie — where the words “lord have mercy” would ordinarily be sung — the line “let the strongest live and the weakest die,” but the overall effect of the piece was in most ways the opposite of something done for shock value. Darwin’s ideas do benefit from “the application of an accepted musical form that is uniquely suited to enhance the expressive potential of language,” as composer Brown writes in the program notes. The group delivered this complex mixture of ideas and music with total conviction, and they followed it with four exquisite songs, including a special treat chosen specifically for the Santa Barbara audience, “The Dying Californian.”