Commentary — GEMS concert Sept. 27, evening: NY Polyphony, Grenser Trio, Ex Umbris

Three rousing sets! I’m so glad I got myself into midtown on this foggy, surprisingly warm evening. I could so easily have missed a super concert.

After a year in business the Times Center still strikes me as oddly designed. It’s meant to serve for any kind of event, I guess, not specifically for concerts, and the architecture doesn’t provide any helpful acoustics, so they are supplied by electronics – Grant said there are a hundred microphones in the ceiling. However, the techs have gotten better at controlling the sound, and it sounded round, specific, and generally natural to me; only once or twice, for a second, did I have the distracting sense that the music was coming from someplace other than the performers on stage. The front wall, behind the shallow stage, is also now completely glass, and you look across a courtyard with birch trees through another glass wall, all the way to the Eighth Avenue entrance to the building. (I’m sure I’d have remembered that from last year, perhaps it was still covered for construction.) It was a little strange to see the occasional late worker coming in and out, and the lights of traffic on the avenue; a friend who had been to the afternoon show (which I heard was great, especially East of the River’s set) commented that from where she’d been sitting, the action in the shop visible on the south side of the courtyard had been rather distracting. I still don’t get why, with all the space devoted to flights of stairs in the hall’s entrance, no proper box office was built, and folding tables have to be brought in, giving an amateur and provisional air to an otherwise slick interior.

The concert opened with the four men of New York Polyphony — Geoffrey Williams, Geoffrey Silver (yes, two G Geoffreys), Scott Dispensa, and Craig Phillips — singing mostly English polyphony, flanked chronologically by Sarum chant and by a new setting of the Magnificat by Andrew Smith. In their little conversation with host Suzanne Bona, they spoke of thinking of themselves as a “string quartet,” with each voice retaining its individuality, and I think they really proved this to be true: starting with the unity of chant, they brought out the complex twining lines of the two pieces by Cornysh with great conviction. In the Taverner Magnificat that preceded the Smith, each section of polyphony (set apart with chant passages) had its own affective character. Making emotional sense of these tricksy weavings isn’t easy, and an argument might be made that it’s unnecessary or even contrary to the spirit of the early Renaissance, but I thought that the quartet made a very good case without going overboard into Baroque or (god forfend) Romantic stylings. (The Taverner has a really nutty change of affect between “Abraham” and “et semini eius” — what is that about? But I heard it and enjoyed it.) I thought I knew the Cornysh Ave maria; I’ve been singing it for over two decades with RSS; but I had an entirely new understanding of it after hearing last night’s performance. (There are short sound clips, including a bit of this piece and some music by Andrew Smith, at the NYP link above; they won’t play until you click on ’em.)

Part II of the concert hustled ahead to 1798, with the Grenser Trio (whew! corrected) performing Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, on fortepiano (Dongsok Shin), classical clarinet (Ed Matthews), and early 19th century cello (Carlene Stober). It took my ears at least half the first movement to become accustomed to the sound of the fortepiano and quit thinking they were hearing a piano through cotton balls, but the light, woody sounds of the three instruments balanced very well (as promised). The lively final movement, variations on a popular opera tune, wittily passed around the circle of instruments, made me think that Beethoven could have been an amusing companion and not solely a tormented genius. The link above has a brief clip, which doesn’t sound as good (through my laptop speakers, at least) as last night’s performance.

And then, fearlessly shifting sound worlds once again, Part III was Ex Umbris’s set of selections from their fabulous program of Spanish 16th- and 17th-century music. It was great to see them together (all except Tom Zajac): it doesn’t happen often enough. (Disclosure of the perhaps-obvious: I am a longtime fan of the group AND a personal friend of several of the members.) Nell Snaidas sounded rich and seductive, Tina Chancey pulled fine lines from viols and kamenche, and Tom’s absence, however regrettable in itself, let us hear Priscilla Smith leading boldly on soprano shawm, Christa Patton making a lovely sound on flute in the Andalusian Kursi, and Karen Hansen playing castanets with a most remarkable Buster Keatonish attitude. Led from behind (no, literally) by Grant Herreid and Paul Shipper, the group wrapped up the evening with Grant’s arrangement of the Gran Chacona and left everyone smiling and applauding madly. “Who were those people and where can we hear them again?” a couple asked afterwards. Well, I said, they don’t have their own website, which is practically like not existing at all, but we can get you the information. So this is for you, Rector Greenlaw of Holy Apostles: I’ll be in touch. (And we must have met when the Renaissance Street Singers sang at the church’s reopening, that’s why you look familiar.)

I also met Jacqueline Slater, who’s in charge of development for the music program at St. Thomas Church , which I’ll be tracking from now on. Nice to meet you, Jackie, I hope to see you again soon.

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