Big Apple group brings big voices

It is a simple setting. Four men wearing matching suits and ties stand together. Nothing is evidently special about them until they begin to sing.

As the four voices blend together, resembling finely tuned instruments, the onlookers realized that this is no ordinary group of men. These are the members of the New York Polyphony, a fairly new vocal chamber ensemble. On March 1, John Brown University was home to the group’s Arkansas debut and their first concert since the release of their newest album..

As the quartet sang a variety of songs ranging from the 14th century to the present day, the audience could see that these men enjoyed performing together. The small on-stage interaction–the nods and the body language-–communicated the fun side of their work.

The New York Polyphony is a quartet offering what has been called by the Minnesota Public Radio a “stunning tour through chant, polyphony and renaissance harmonies.”
Stunning it certainly was. The matching of the men’s voices made it a challenge to discern which sound came from whom, as they brought the polyphonous music into a unitary whole.

The first half of the program contained song selections based on biblical texts, including a group entitled “Lamentations of Jeremiah for Maundy Thursday.” Bass Craig Phillips said the piece was probably the hardest on the program tonight, since it requires constant singing for up to 13 minutes at a time. He added that as far as he knows, this group is the first to make a recording of the piece.

After a brief intermission, the men returned to the stage to sing five energetic German songs—four by Franz Schubert and a more recent piece—which baritone Christopher Herbert introduced as being “mostly about love and dancing.”

The next section of songs offered a rather nautical theme, including an Ozark folk song. “The
Dying Californian” tells the tale of a gold prospector who finds himself near death on the voyage around South America and sends his farewell messages to his family.

The last song on the program, the French “La bataille de Marignan,” provided what Phillips called a “history lesson” in operatic form. With a variety of tones, the piece sets the stage and creates a picture in sound of the clash of battle.

After a standing ovation, the quartet concluded with a rendition of “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” as an encore. Countertenor Geoffrey Williams said this concert was the group’s first time to sing the piece.
The New York Polyphony was founded in 2006 after the four original members made a Christmas recording together and realized that their voices blended well. Since then, two of the members have moved on to other projects and two others have replaced them. The quartet has made three recordings, the most recent of which was released on Feb. 28.

Tenor Steven Wilson said all four members of the group are friends who enjoy singing together. Wilson is the most recent addition, having joined the group in October.

It has been a steep learning curve, Wilson said. He had worked with members of the group in other capacities before auditioning for the open position. The process brought it down to two people, and he was the one chosen. Wilson said he was grateful for the opportunity to be part of the group.

Williams, one of the original members, said that helping Wilson learn the repertoire provides an opportunity for the group to “reinvent” their music. All four members are full-time musicians with degrees in music, Williams added.

Freshman Ashley Grant said she has recently been studying various genres of music in her music history class. Having that background and recognizing the artistry of the polyphony helped her thoroughly enjoy hearing the group perform, she added.

“Attending this concert has made me excited about my major again,” Grant concluded.