New Classical Tracks: A Renaissance Box of Chocolates

by Julie Amacher
April 23, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: A Renaissance Box of Chocolates
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Stile Antico - "Passion and Resurrection" (Harmonia Mundi 807555) (Image courtesy of Harmonia Mundi)

Stile Antico is a group of young British singers. Their name literally means "old style," a term coined during the seventeenth century to describe polyphonic Renaissance church music. Stile Antico just completed an extensive U.S. tour starting in Boston and ending in New York, with various stops in-between including Kansas City and Minneapolis.

The tour was in celebration of their latest release, "Passion and Resurrection," music inspired by Holy Week. Soprano Helen Ashby and tenor Ben Hymas agree this program is an embarrassment of riches, "Every time I turn the page for the next piece, I think it's the favorite one, and then they just keep getting better," says Helen. "That's right," Ben adds, "It's a chocolate box, an absolute chocolate box of Renaissance music."

This box of Renaissance chocolates is filled with rich morsels from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Belgium, Italy, Spain and England. If you're looking for just the right tasty nugget, Ben suggests you sample one by John Taverner, with its soaring melodic lines and high treble part, "I particularly love 'Dum transisset sabbatum' by Taverner," Ben admits, "although the sopranos will hate me for saying that because it's not the easiest piece to sing."

One audience favorite is, "O vos omnes," by the great Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis di Victoria. This work is very homophonic, with a single melodic line. It gives Stile Antico a chance to color the text in a very effective way.

"Passion and Resurrection" opens with a devotional 'carol' titled, "Woefully Arrayed," by English composer William Cornysh. Another work inspired by that piece, also titled, "Woefully Arrayed," was composed specifically for Stile Antico.

Helen says this is the first time they've commissioned a piece, "It came about because we were singing in a concert for the Three Choirs Festival in the UK and they had a Composer in Residence that year who was John McCabe. And they were very keen to commission something for us to fit alongside that program. He looked at the program we were doing and chose that text, the "Woefully arrayed" from the Cornysh, which is an incredible text- very vivid and lots of amazing imagery, so he did his own take on it." One thing you'll notice about Stile Antico is their incredibly vivid blend which has established them as one of the most original and exciting new ensembles in their field.

Ben Hymas attributes their success to the trust and respect they each have for one another. "I mean, people have often asked us how we make our sound, whether we cultivate it," Helen adds, "and the answer is that it does just come out of the way we work. I think the group was set up to make the most of the fact that without a central person conducting, it feels more alive to us in the sense that we're all responsible for communicating with each other. Everyone's got a part to play, so everyone's that much more switched on." Everyone in Stile Antico is really fired up about making music together, including their newest member, bass Tom Flint, who was handpicked to the join the ensemble the day they were scheduled to fly out for their U.S tour. His baptism by fire includes recording sessions for their upcoming release, "Phoenix Rising," which features highlights from the Tudor Church Music series. It's due out later this summer.