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Stile Antico: Old-School A Cappella in Boston

Every two years, in the midst of a seemingly endless flow of music during the Boston Early Music Festival, there are events that spark the imagination well before the festival even kicks off. This year, one of those was the North American debut of the British choral ensemble Stile Antico.

The group's 13 young singers (most are still in their 20s) have released three splendid recordings on the Harmonia Mundi label, whetting the appetite for this face-to-face encounter.

Just before 8 p.m. on June 12, the line outside Emmanuel Church in Boston stretched down the block along Newbury Street in the heart of the Back Bay, almost to Public Garden. Emmanuel is a grand old building of sturdy architecture, frayed and worn a bit by the years, but with glorious stained glass and marvelous acoustics for choral music.

Conductorless Consensus

Unlike most choral groups, Stile Antico works without a conductor. That's not exactly groundbreaking — other large ensembles, like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, operate similarly — but when the opening bars of Ego flos campi by Jacob Clemens non Papa rang out in the church, it suddenly seemed an astounding proposition.

The Renaissance music at the core of the group's repertoire demands an immaculate grasp of pitch by each singer, along with exquisite precision in maneuvering through the intricacies of rhythm and color. So how is it that the group seemed to effortlessly execute movement, dynamics, shadings and articulations in utmost unity and clarity with barely a look at each other?

Before the concert, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a rehearsal and saw firsthand how individual opinions were subject to an easy, efficient discussion, making consensus and flexibility as important to the group's approach as the sheer beauty and range of each voice. Tenor Andrew Griffiths and bass Matthew O'Donovan describe the group's dynamic as the product of years-old friendships, making the subtle communications and willingness to bend seem second nature.

Sensuous Songs

For this concert, Stile Antico draws from the music on its new CD, Song of Songs, which offers settings of texts from the biblical Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon). The gorgeous love poetry has an undeniable eroticism ("Come my beloved, let us go out into the field..."), although conventionally it gets interpreted as a metaphor for God's relationship with his people. Whichever angle you choose, Stile Antico's performance brings a sensuous, ravishing quality to the music while staying true to its origins.

An added bonus is the occasional commentary from the stage by O'Donovan, whose knowledge of music and theology, along with a particularly British brand of understated humor, draws the listener ever closer to the music.

Afterward, as I stepped out into the warm air on Newbury Street, there was still a busy final weekend of festival concerts ahead. But Stile Antico's timeless performance seemed to put the rest of the world on hold, at least for a while.

Copyright 2009 GBH

Brian McCreath