How did you keep a roof over your head and food on the table as a composer in the 16th century? Odds are it was through taking cloying, pandering texts in praise of your powerful employer and turning them into triumphant polyphony. “Having splendid music at court was a way of asserting status,” tenor Andrew Griffiths explained between selections of the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s March 6 program at the First Congregational Church in Columbus, OH.
The concert concluded the British group’s American tour, which has featured music written for the House of Habsburg. Certainly no Western dynasty had more “status” than the Habsburgs, who ruled parts of Europe for most of the past millennium. (The assertion in Clemens non Papa’s Carole magnus eras that King Charles ruled over “all of Asia and Africa” was pure exaggeration.) In any case, being in the employ of the Habsburgs called for a certain amount of sycophancy.
However, Stile Antico is far from sycophantic. Their delivery is opulent but lean, with organic energy. No matter how prim and proper the texts, there was no trace of cassock-and-ruff, choir-stall stuffiness in the performance.
The group, which will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary, has no conductor. Still, from the first flashing notes of Cristobal de Morales’ Jubilate deo, the 12 singers consistently breathed together, started together, and ended together. Vowels were as tall and solid as the church’s walls, and consonants were audible without chopping up the phrases, as if the singers’ brains were somehow wired to a hidden central hub below the floor. (Maybe that’s why the women all wear floor-length dresses.)
(I can post these latest reviews now because SFCV has them up.)