The holidays are fast approaching, but that doesn’t mean you have to surrender to an endless loop of predictable musical festivity. This weekend, courtesy of the Early Music Guild, brings one of the most sought-after of the new wave of ensembles devoted to Renaissance choral music: Stile Antico, in a well-planned program that promises a fresh contribution to the holiday music scene but one that would be welcome in any season.
The young British singers have chosen Seattle, where they’ll be performing for the first time, to launch their North American tour built around music written in the Tudor era for Advent and Christmas. Their program will present a concert version of the Grammy-winning group’s fifth CD (on harmonia mundi) and shares its title: Puer natus est (“A Boy Is Born”), the name of a seasonal plainchant on which Thomas Tallis based an ambitious setting of the Mass for Christmas Day. Released in 2010, the CD found its way onto several best-of-the-year lists.
Stile Antico represents one of a host of a cappella ensembles to emerge over the last decade as heirs to the ground-breaking Tallis Scholars. According to New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in a roundup he wrote last January of this renaissance of Renaissance groups, they offer “a startling richness of tone” to the template established by the Tallis Scholars. But what really sets them apart, explains August Denhard, Early Music Guild’s executive director, is their conductor-less performance style: “They have a much more personal take on this repertory. Instead of following a leader, they stand in a semi-circle, like a group of friends getting together to make music. It allows for a remarkable flexibility in the ebb and flow — similar to the kind of phrasing you find with a string quartet.”
The program’s linchpin is Thomas Tallis’s grandly scaled Christmas Mass, which was first performed in 1554 and features elaborate seven-part writing. Along with its liturgical significance during the brief Catholic restoration under Queen Mary, the work may even have been intended to celebrate what later turned out to be the Queen’s phantom pregnancy. Music by Tallis’s contemporaries will complement the Puer natus Mass and highlight the striking diversity of techniques and styles that developed in the Tudor era. Oliver Hunt, who sings bass with Stile Antico, contrasts the “beautifully austere” music of a responsary byJohn Tavener, written for upper voices alone, with the “extraordinarily emotional” text setting of William Byrd’s pieces for Advent. (Sample some excerpts in this Stile Antico clip.)
And for their performance in St. James Cathedral, permission has been granted to allow Stile Antico to perform in a semi-circle positioned around the central altar. “It’s the ideal way to take advantage of the Cathedral’s acoustics and reverb,” notes Denhard, “and to experience their personal, chamber-like way of making music.”
Meanwhile, the locally based Seattle Pro Musica launches its season on the following weekend with a tour of the rest of the British Isles. Billed as a Celtic Christmas and featuring traditional folk songs along with Dublin-born C.V. Stanford’s classic setting of the Magnificat for double chorus, the program will also make room for a healthy mix of contemporary choral music, with pieces by preeminent Scottish composers Judith Weir and James MacMillan, Welshman Paul Mealor, and Eibhlis Farrell of Ireland.
If you go: Stile Antico performs Puer natus est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas this Saturday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m. in St. James Cathedral, 9th and Marion. (206) 325-7066. Tickets: $15-40.
Seattle Pro Musica presents A Celtic Christmas the following Saturday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall, 8th and Seneca, 206-781-2766. Also, Saturday, Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapel at Bastyr University 14500 Juanita Drive NE, Kenmore. Tickets: $5-25.