Craig Phillips

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The American bass shares his love of British repertoire ahead of New York Polyphony’s UK debut at Cadogan Hall

Following the release of their new CD endBeginning on the BIS label, New York Polyphony are bringing their modern take on Renaissance harmony to the UK. Craig Phillips tells us what we can expect from their upcoming Cadogan Hall performance on 21 March.

How did the idea for your new CD, endBeginning, come about?
George Steel, the general director of the New York City Opera, gave us this piece of music, Thomas Crecquillon's Lamentations of Jeremiah. It’s a really spectacular setting of the Lamentations, and so that started off our thought process; it was the centre piece for the rest, and from there we built out. We started looking at some other repertoire, like Antoine Brumel's Requiem, and eventually we had enough for a disc, so it really evolved very organically from this one piece that was the impetus for all the rest.

How does it differ from your previous disc Tudor City?
The main difference is that this is much more of a repertoire disc for us. Tudor City was individual pieces, mostly from the Tudor era, with some new compositions. These larger suites of music like the Requiem and the Lamentations are the closest we come, we feel, to having string quartet repertoire. The most obvious difference is the Franco-Flemish influence in the music. We decided to be a bit more early-music-centric on this one: there’s only one new work and it’s at the end of the record. It’s a composition written for us by a man named Jackson Hill, which is kind of a fantasy on a Guillaume de Machaut piece, so we have an early music colour in the new works.

And what can we expect from your Cadogan Hall debut?
Tudor City was standard Classical repertoire – we’re doing some Schubert song, and a piece that was written for us by Gregory Brown in response to the Schubert, Abschied vom Leser. We’re also performing the Dying Californian, which is an American folk hymn. What’s interesting about the piece is that you assume during the gold rush the potential miners made their way across the country on land, but that’s actually not true – this story is about a man who travels by boat, leaving from the port of New Orleans down around the southern tip South America, and he doesn’t make it. It’s a letter back to his family.

There’s quite an American influence on your programme. How do you think a UK audience will respond?
We approached the programme with a great deal of respect for our London premiere. A lot of the groups that we are modelled after – like the Hilliard Ensemble and the Orlando Consort – are from England, so we tried to look at every piece we are performing and ask ‘Why would an English audience find this interesting?’ We wanted some American flavour, but it isn’t as conspicuously American as some people might expect. We have some new ideas that we’re bringing to the repertory, we’re not intentionally trying to be the Hilliard ensemble tribute band.

There’s a lot of British repertoire there as well – what is it about British polyphony that resonates with you?
It matches our vocal make up very well. We tried our best to stick with repertoire that was intended for men, as opposed to SATB configurations which we translated down. Obviously, there’s going to be some of that, but we try to find things that were originally suited to what we do, so that’s a lot of Taverner music, and a bit of Tallis music. We were raked over the coals a bit for an unorthodox performance of William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus where we’ve taken the soprano melody and moved it into the baritone, and it works beautifully.

Do you have a favourite composer whose works you like to sing?
That’s very difficult. My favourite piece on the concert is definitely the final piece of polyphony from the first half, Lambe’s Stella caeli. It is an absolutely exquisite piece of music. It’s more difficult than it sounds – it’s very rhythmically challenging, and it was written as a prayer for the survivors of the plague, so it really has a different feel, there’s a real passionate aspect to it, that you don’t find in other at the time, which is very studied and cool, but this is very ‘heart-on-the-sleeve’; it’s a very beautiful piece of music.

Interview by Mel Spencer

New York Polyphony perform at Cadogan Hall on 21 March at 7.30pm