Ancient Yuletide Carols

He lives in New York, but Geoffrey Williams, countertenor with the four-piece male vocal ensemble New York Polyphony, is no stranger to Minnesota’s choral traditions. “[It’s] the land of all these great, cool, choir programs at St. Olaf and Luther and Concordia,” he effuses.

Williams and the rest of New York Polyphony made their Minnesota debut in September 2010, conducting workshops and performing a concert at St. Olaf College in Northfield. A video of that entire concert can be viewed using this link to St. Olaf’s website or by clicking the image below.

New York Polyphony perform at St Olaf College; click image to view video

Screen grab of New York Polyphony’s concert at St. Olaf College (thanks to David Gonnerman at St. Olaf for providing the link).

Cathy Rodland, an artist-in-residence and lecturer in St. Olaf’s music department, organized NYP’s 2010 visit to the campus. “They really are fantastic singers,” she says. “Plus, they are such great, nice guys and good conversationalists in front of an audience — and they have to be, because their music is not heard a lot, so they are really good at bringing the audience into it.”

Perhaps the reason NYP’s music is not heard often is because much of it is outside living memory; the ensemble’s repertoire is rooted in medieval and Renaissance music.

On Dec. 9, New York Polyphony will make its Twin Cities premiere at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis (full disclosure: the concert is presented by Classical MPR). Although this debut concert will have a Christmas theme — coincidentally, the ensemble formed over Christmas music — the mainstream concept of Christmas music is not on the bill.

According to Williams, New York Polyphony will sing selections from its 2007 debut album I Sing the Birth and from its 2010 release Tudor City. Bearing in mind the sophistication of Minnesota’s choral audiences, Williams is also planning some surprises. “We’ll have some things that generally we might not do,” he says, “some choral repertoire we’re choosing to give a chamber flavor to.”

New York Polyphony pose in a subway entrance

Vocal ensemble New York Polyphony (photo by Joanne Bouknight).

Williams describes New York Polyphony’s sound as a “vocal string quartet,” but concedes the space in which the group sings acts as a fifth instrument. Notably, I Sing the Birth was recorded inside New York’s St. George’s Church; Tudor City was recorded in New York’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. The effect of those spaces is palpable in the recordings; one can almost picture the music wafting up through the vaulted transept of a Gothic cathedral, resounding off stone walls and arches.

“You’re not going to be hearing a lot of ‘Silent Night’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman’ in any of our shows,” Williams says, “but we think this music is a very beautiful expression of the season. In fact, for me, a lot of these medieval carols evoke just as warm, fuzzy memories of Christmas as anything. That’s the music that speaks to me, and hopefully we’re able to express that in our performance.”

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