Check it out
What: New York Polyphony
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis
Tickets: $30 general, $10 students; www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787
The male quartet known as New York Polyphony sings a mix of early music and recent compositions that recall the style and sound of vocal works from centuries past.
The program for their two performances at the Mondavi Center — Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre — is an example. Featured will be an established classic — the Mass for Four Voices by the English composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) — alongside works recalling the styles of the 1500s and 1600s by living composers Gregory Brown (b. 1974), Andrew Smith (b. 1974) and Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962).
It’s a dual-track style of programming that San Francisco’s venerable male vocal ensemble Chanticleer pioneered 25 years ago, and has been pursued successfully over the past 15 years by the three female Scandinavian singers known as Trio Medieval as well.
Brown’s “Missa Charles Darwin” will be the centerpiece among the contemporary works. Craig Phillips, who sings bass with New York Polyphony, said the idea for the piece germinated when he was watching a documentary about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution.
“And at the end, they were talking about the cultural significance of Darwin’s work, and suggested that his writings were arguably the most influential books since the Bible, which I thought was a pretty profound statement.” Given that Darwin’s language is “very lyrical and beautiful,” Phillips and the other members of New York Polyphony started “thinking of a way we could cast this language (in musical form) to honor Darwin’s work.
“We reached out to composer Gregory Brown, and he immediately jumped on board. He came up with some fascinating techniques for creating the music in the same format as the five movements for a Mass… He used (the idea of) DNA, the chromosomal code of the Darwin Finch, and assigned note values to the various letters (in the DNA sequence).”
The piece was premiered in 2011, and a recording came out earlier this year.
The Tallis Mass, on the other hand, is nearly 500 years old, and is a standard among vocal ensembles specializing in English choral music of that era. Over the course of his long life, Tallis served four different English monarchs, and also witnessed the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.
Since Tallis wrote only four movements in this Mass (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), New York Polyphony hired composer Andrew Smith to write a Kyrie movement, which will be sung immediately preceding the Tallis Mass, providing the fifth section that a Mass of that era would typically entail.
New York Polyphony is a relatively new group — the members got together in 2006, to record some music for a Christmas program on Public Radio International. The producer at the radio recording session was impressed and shared a copy of the session with a record company in London.
“And so we kind of had a record deal before we were performing in public,” Phillips said. They took the material for the PRI session, recorded some additional songs, and the result became New York Polyphony’s first album, “I Sing The Birth.”
The group has subsequently released several more recordings, the most recent being “Missa Charles Darwin” and “Times go by Turns,” both of which contain much of the material that New York Polyphony will perform in Davis.
Phillips acknowledged that much like the black gospel quartets of the 1930s and 1940s (which typically toured the American South in a motor car), New York Polyphony travels light.
“It’s four guys and their (music) folders,” Phillips said. “We don’t even need a piano. One of the reasons we’ve had the success we’ve had in these uncertain economic times is that we are a lean organization.”
With only four members, New York Polyphony is even more compact than groups like Chanticleer (which feature 12 voices) or The King’s Singers (six voices, performing a concert of love songs on Valentine’s Day 2014).
“We’re out on the road about sixty days a year, and by the end of this season, we will have performed in 34 of the 50 states, and about a dozen countries,” Phillips said. “We’ve had a charmed go at this.”
Curious readers can sample New York Polyphony’s sound online on the NPR website:
and on the group’s website:
Tickets for the group’s Mondavi Center performances are $30 general, $10 students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.