No end in sight

September 28, 2012

One year ago (almost to the day) New York Polyphony embarked on a fantastic adventure. We traveled to Sweden to record endBeginning, our first release for acclaimed record label BIS Records. It was the first time any of us had been to Sweden, so we were understandably excited. But at the same time, we were a bit nervous—nervous about working with a new producer, nervous about singing in an unfamiliar acoustic, nervous about delivering a product that met BIS’ high standards, nervous about computing exchange rates on the fly while brokering beer purchases**, nervous about…well, let’s just say that we were up against a lot of unknowns. Also in the mix was our desire to improve upon the quality of our first two CDs, I sing the birth and Tudor City.

We were confident that the music we’d chosen—most of it composed by masters of the Franco-Flemish school of polyphony active in the first half of the 16th century—was extraordinary. We were also sure that the rep had been fully vetted; each piece had been “road tested”, sung many times over in concerts across the United States during our 2009/ 2010 season. The thing we didn’t know, the question we couldn’t answer, was whether or not we would succeed in capturing on record a committed and compelling musical performance.

In our approach to early music, achieving a vital and vibrant performance is our highest priority. A successful reading isn’t enough. Yes, it’s satisfying to hear all the right notes sung in the right place at the right time with the right stylistic gesture, period diction, etc. And indeed, that alone is an achievement that’s often a lot harder than it sounds. But to us, precision is no substitute for passion…even if it adheres slavishly to the dictates of the most well-informed and well-intentioned historical performance practitioners. We feel very strongly that early music deserves the same expressive intensity that music of later periods receives. After all, a butterfly pinned to a board is a thing of beauty, but never as impressive as one that actually flies.

In producer Jens Braun we found a kindred collaborator. Jens very much wanted to capture a living, breathing performance. Not only did he give us room to explore, he actively encouraged exploration. Some of the most magical moments on endBeginning are a result of Jens urging us to take risks. Listening to the disc now, I’m grateful for his prodding and for challenging us to stray outside of our comfort zones.

One year later, I’m happy to report that the disc has done very, very well. We’ve garnered a lot of praise, both in the U.S. and Europe. Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the reviews:

  • “a gorgeous and reflective program” – NPR/ Deceptive Cadence
  • “a beautifully conceived, performed and produced release” – Music Web International
  • “…an argument for New York Polyphony’s preeminence among today’s male vocal ensembles.” – Classics Today
  • “…demonstrates a commanding and expressive mastery of the vocal art of a cappella.” – Diapason (France)
  • “…an intelligently designed program, showing the brilliant potential of the ensemble New York Polyphony.” – (Germany)
  • “This recording is a must for fans of Renaissance or contemporary polyphony.” – Early Music America
  • “…their blended, splendidly balanced, and well-controlled voices navigate easily through the complexities of this rather dark program, illumined by the beauty of the performances.” – Audiophile Audition

Don’t own endBeginning yet? What are you waiting for? Find it here, here or here in whatever format suits your fancy.

And now it’s confession time:
My goal was to document the ENTIRE ADVENTURE for a series of video podcasts called The Sweden Files, but the universe conspired against me. The technical demands overwhelmed my wimpy Dell netbook and, thanks to a very bad head cold, all of my spare energy was spent trying to keep my froggy voice in one piece. So, the The Sweden Files were cancelled after just two episodes. But today, I’m happy to announce the world broadcast premiere of EPISODE 1.

Thanks for watching, reading, and listening.

Now, on to future adventures….


** An inside joke. Thanks to our time in Norway performing at the Vestfold Festspillene in 2011, we learned the hard way just how expensive Scandinavia can be. After a particularly grueling rehearsal, the four of us retired to a pub around the corner. We were happy to discover that they had one of our favorite English beers (Old Speckled Hen) on tap. Pints were pulled and money changed hands. Only later did we do the math! Each beer worked out to be $14!! How do you say “ouch” in Norwegian?