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Music review: Stile Antico at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral

April 19, 2012|By Rick Schultz
  • The members of Stile Antico.
The members of Stile Antico. (Marco Borggreve )

Stile Antico, an early-music vocal ensemble from England, made its Los Angeles debut on Wednesday for the Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral downtown. Offering a generous program of Renaissance masterpieces, along with a stunning 21stcentury work by John McCabe, the group dramatically bridged the stile antico, or "old style," fashionable in Palestrina's day, with McCabe's modern style.

Though the phrase "old style" sounds disparaging to modern ears, the ensemble proved that though fashion goes out of style, an engaging style never goes out of fashion. Arranged in a semicircle, the six men and six women -- (incidentally, three of the singers are sisters, two of them twins) -- sang pieces from 15 composers with minimum vibrato and a consistently captivating vocal blend. The variety of tone and dynamics was also remarkable, given that Stile Antico work without a conductor.

The young ensemble got an early career boost by touring with Sting for his “Songs From the Labyrinth” album, and more recently it can be heard, albeit briefly, on the soundtrack of “The Hunger Games.” This is Stile Antico’s fourth American tour in 18 months, and it has a gorgeously produced Harmonia Mundi CD just out, “Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart.” The disc, an intimate, otherworldly collection of Tudor and Jacobean sacred music written for domestic devotion, features an unusual touch for this a cappella group: On several tracks, the singers are accompanied by the viol consort Fretwork.  

Tenor Andrew Griffiths, acting as the group’s spokesman, charmingly called Wednesday’s program “a whistle-stop tour of Renaissance polyphony.” With the mood enhanced by a slight haze of incense burning in the cathedral, the soaring beauty of Stile Antico’s sound was immediately apparent in Nicolas Gombert’s “Magnificat Primi Toni.” In William Byrd’s “Laetentur Coeli” and Thomas Tallis’ “O Sacrum convivium,” the singer’s voices bloomed, while maintaining an exquisite balance.

The concert’s centerpiece, McCabe’s “Woefully Arrayed,” commissioned for Stile Antico and given its premiere by the group in 2009, is based on an anonymous text set by the 16thcentury composer William Cornysh. In evoking Christ’s Passion, Stile Antico conjured powerful vocal contrasts amid the score’s shifting textures, strange dissonances and rich harmonies.

After intermission, the singers gave an exciting rendition of Thomas Tomkins’ “O Praise the Lord,” listening closely to each other in rendering its intricate counterpoint and antiphonal effects. Also dazzling: “Veni, Dilecte Mi” by Spanish composer Sebastián de Vivanco, and Hieronymus Praetorius’ “Tota Pulchra Es,” in which the singers divided into three choirs of four.

For an encore, Stile Antico offered the simple harmonies of Thomas Campion’s “Never Weather-beaten Sail.”

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