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Quartet mixes modern attitude, medieval works

09.18.09
New York Polyphony
The Denver Post

By Sabine Kortals

New York Polyphony will perform a set of 14th- to 16th-century works, as well as new music, at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral tonight. Members of the vocal quartet are, clockwise from top left, Craig Phillips, Geoffrey Silver, Scott Dispensa and Geoffrey Williams.

New York Polyphony is not the usual sort of vocal quartet to make the rounds.

The group, which makes its Colorado debut at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral tonight, is all men and sings a cappella.

"As a men's quartet, our sound is unique," said tenor Geoffrey Silver.

"Other groups often have two tenors or two altos, but our sound is much lower."

In Denver, the new ensemble — whose members are in their late 20s to early 30s — will perform a set of 14th- and 15th-century works by Antoine Brumel, John Dunstable and John Pyamour, as well as 15th- and 16th-century sacred polyphony from Flanders.

Interestingly, the program also includes a couple of New York Polyphony-commissioned works by Jackson Hill and Gregory Brown, as well as Francis Poulenc's "Quatre petites prieres de Francois d'Assise," Maurice Duruflè's "Notre Père" and two songs by Franz Schubert.

"When we develop a program, we try lots of music to see if it fits our voices," Silver said.

"We do a lot of experimentation, working out transpositions and exchanging voice parts. Lucky for us, I suppose, women weren't allowed to sing in the church early on, so there's a lot of music for male voices to choose from."

But the members of New York Polyphony don't live in the past. With an active online presence via their website and MySpace blog, not to mention their activity on Facebook and Twitter, the group works hard to connect with audiences.

"What's wonderful about music, and communicating about music through social media, is that it unites people across boundaries, borders and time zones," Silver said. "There's an odd craving among those who follow us to know who we are as people, even what we had for breakfast!"

Silver's experience as a videographer lends itself to the group's efforts to engage and grow their audiences. "As we get more global, it seems the Internet is moving us toward being more communal. The classical music world needs to catch up to the times and hit all the ways in which people are interacting with one another."

The group got together almost by accident.

"Before we came together as an ensemble in 2006, we knew each other through the singing circuit in New York," said Silver. "Then we came together by chance in a recording session for (Public Radio International)."

From there, the singers — also including countertenor Geoffrey Williams, baritone Scott Dispensa and bass- baritone Craig Phillips — began performing repertoire ranging from medieval chant to 21st-century liturgical compositions.

Williams, a former member of the American Boychoir, is in demand as an early music specialist, performing regularly with groups such as Vox Populi Vocal Ensemble and Early Music New York. "Geoff has been in the church since he was a kid, his father was a clergyman," Silver said. "He lives and breathes the repertoire."

Williams graduated from Westminster Choir College where he met Dispensa, who also graduated from The Juilliard School and regularly appears in musical theater and operatic productions.

"He studied trumpet as an undergrad, coming to church music late in his career," Silver said. "He's also a fine operatic singer."

Silver, originally from England, where he studied at Cambridge University's Trinity College, keeps busy as a freelance singer.

New York Polyphony's debut CD, "I Sing the Birth," was released in 2007. Touted by Gramophone Magazine as "one of the season's best," it will be available for purchase at the concert.

The group is set to release a CD of Elizabethan-inspired music recorded at Manhattan's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in spring 2010.