Touring male vocal ensembles seem to be in vogue in Dallas. Following a visit by Britain’s Gesualdo Six in November, two American groups, New York Polyphony and Cantus, came to town this week, bringing different Christmas programs.
New York Polyphony
New York Polyphony, founded in 2006, comprises a countertenor, two tenors and a bass. The quartet’s Sunday program at Saint Michael and All Angels Church was divided into two parts. The first was mainly devoted to Renaissance music, and the second served up arrangements and original compositions from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Early Renaissance selections, by English and French composers, featured both chordal passages and sections where individual voices closely echoed one another.
From later in the Renaissance, a group of Christmas motets by Byrd displayed intricate counterpoint and considerable virtuosity. The unrelated “O quam suavis,” also by Byrd, was notable for its chromatic motion and unusual harmonies.
From the 20th century, John Tavener’s “The Lamb,” a setting of the famous William Blake poem and the late English composer’s best-known work, contrasted close-wrought dissonances with standard chords. Written in memory of Tavener, “O pia Virgo,” by Irish composer Michael McGlynn, was more adventurous in harmonies and rhythms.
New York Polyphony brought sleek and polished vocalism, with clear diction. They sculpted phrases with care, giving every note a direction. Dynamic changes were alternately subtle and dramatic.
Though their voices were expertly blended and balanced, individual lines were discernible even in thick counterpoint. Each singer knew when and how much to bring melodies to the fore, before retreating into the texture.
The group generally sang with a beautiful legato, creating an impression of sameness. English priest and composer George Ratcliffe Woodward’s adaptation of “Up! good Christen folk, and listen,” in which the quartet evoked bells with crisp staccatos, provided an exception to the rule.
Spoken introductions were mostly helpful, though mention of music theory terminology was more confusing than insightful.
Founded in Minnesota in 1995, Cantus employs four tenors, two baritones and two basses. Presented by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, their Monday performance at the Meyerson Symphony Center was more populist than the New York Polyphony’s more serious affair of church music.
The program paired narration of two Christmas stories with arrangements and original works from the 20th and 21st centuries. It also featured a new piece by American composer Chris Foss, a Cantus bass.
In Foss’ “Dakota and the Snow Phoenix,” a bird named Dakota doesn’t fit in with the geese in his flock. After an encounter with a sage grizzly bear, Dakota realizes he’s actually a phoenix, and helps keep geese safe and warm on their southward journeys.
Foss mixes modernist harmonies, stretches of tonality, passing dissonances and tone clusters. Swirling figures recall snow flurries. The piece proved inventive and compelling.
Most of the concert’s first half focused on a 1988 children’s book called The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston. It depicts scenes from a family’s life in Appalachia on and around Christmas.
Cantus members’ readings from the story alternated with the musical selections. Some were specifically mentioned in the tale; others were related in theme and mood.
Cantus used a similar approach in presenting How the Grinch Stole Christmas, incorporating songs from the TV special and selections from farther afield, such as Filipino composer Saunder Choi’s arrangement of Filipino carols and Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s “Gamelan,” inspired by an Indonesian orchestra of the same name.
The evening’s highpoints included two barbershop quartets: Marvin V. Curtis’ jazzy arrangement of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” gave off infectious energy, and Jon Nicholas’ arrangement of “Must Be Santa” was full of breathless accelerandos. Christopher H. Harris’ setting of “Silent Night” provided both gentle repose and hair-raising moments in daring harmonic progressions. Less convincing were sentimental pieces by American singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and Canadian singer-songwriter Corlynn Hanney.
Cantus offered warm, burnished and supple singing. They energized dynamic contrasts, bringing phrases to life. With more low voices, Cantus’ sound understandably had greater depth than New York Polyphony’s. Ensemble blend was mostly solid, but motifs weren’t always passed around at the same volume.