October 14, 2015

Vocal Ensemble Gallicantus Performs Music in the Round at Richardson


Performing arts organizations have long been exploring ways to better connect with audiences, and listeners often wonder what is really going on with performers onstage during a concert. Princeton University Concerts has taken a step toward answering all these questions with a newly-created “Performances Up Close” series bringing musicians and audiences together in an intimate space. This past Sunday afternoon saw the renowned vocal ensemble Gallicantus performing within a circle of 150 of their closest friends in Richardson Auditorium. In this unique concert arena, the audience could hear every nuance from both singers and music, and the members of Gallicantus could easily gauge the impact of their performance. The only thing wrong with this concept was that despite two performances on Sunday afternoon, only 300 or so people could fit onstage and hear the finely-polished vocal precision of these five singers. 

The second Sunday afternoon performance was introduced as part of a “series about connections” — between performers and music, audience and stage, and in collaboration with local artist Marsha Levin-Rojer, between music and art. Suspended over the singers was “Rondo,” a three-dimensional drawing made of aluminum wire and shaped to represent the movement of sound waves in the air. Ms. Levin-Rojer created this piece as part of “The Musical Line,” which will be on display for each of the “Performances Up Close.”

Founded in 2008, the six-member Gallicantus (five performed on Sunday) focuses on music of the Renaissance period, particularly exploring the members’ shared love of communicating text. The ensemble’s Princeton connection is through director Gabriel Crouch, director of choral activities at Princeton University. On Sunday afternoon, counter-tenor David Allsopp, tenors Nick Todd and Christopher Watson, bass William Gaunt, and baritone Gabriel Crouch brought the weaving contrapuntal lines of the 16th century to life, combined with the 21st-century harmonic twists of the two contemporary works performed.

Gallicantus focused the concert around the mid-16th century Prophetiae Sibyllarum of the Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus, whose progressive harmonic writing paved the way for the high Renaissance in music. Interspersed among the Prologue and 12 movements of Lassus’s work were two contemporary pieces on the “Sibyll” theme by Princeton University composers Dan Trueman and Dmitri Tymoczko. Lassus was a revolutionary composer in his time and the pieces by Trueman and Tymoczko were equally as innovative in challenging Gallicantus to sing as a finely-tuned choral machine.

The Prologue and first three “Sibyllas” were described by Gallicantus as a model of the 16th-century musica reservata tradition, which revolved around intimate yet ornate chromatic repertory. From the outset, Gallicantus showed solid communication among the singers and perfectly matched vowels which created power in the overall sound. Providing contrast to Lassus’s counterpoint were chants by Hildegard von Bingen, sung from offstage by Mr. Todd and later Mr. Crouch. The shifting chords and chromaticism which were so unusual for the 16th century were expertly handled by Gallicantus, whether singing as a quartet or quintet in the Lassus motets. Taking full advantage of the space and “connections” experience, the singers moved around in their own circle every few pieces, giving audience members a chance to hear different vocal perspectives.

Dan Trueman’s 2014 Delphica Gaedhlica addressed Sibyllic texts through three different languages — English, Latin, and Irish. Trueman included microtone tuning in this work, an effect often more easily achieved with voices than instruments and well accomplished by Gallicantus. Beginning with a vocal effect like shimmering glass, Gallicantus built the harmonies with no nicks to the chords or faltering steps, with Mr. Allsopp providing a particular vocal edge to the top of the sound. The middle section of Trueman’s work flowed easily, and the last two lines of the piece especially showed how five singers can match the power of a much larger chorus through expert tuning and vocal production.

Dmitri Tymoczko’s 2015 Prophetiae Sibyllarum approached the text in a chordal, yet challenging and demanding manner, drawing on the ancient practice of incorporating the title of the verse into the music (with titles referring to American cities). Tymoczko’s six-section work took full advantage of Mr. Gaunt’s low bass voice, and explored several genres within this one piece. “Sibylla Chicagonis” was jazzier, with driving rhythms and relentless accents, while “Sibylla Washingtonii” showed the open chords and spatial sound of early American music. The final two verse settings were particularly challenging for Gallicantus in the rapid-fire text and minimalistic textures, but the ensemble did not miss a beat.

Gallicantus is making a name for itself in the professional choral arena, with a solid commitment to early music and well-received recordings under the ensemble’s belt. Both Trueman and Tymoczko are composing music which is appealing and has promise of future performances, and to have all these elements combined onstage in Princeton was a real treat for a fall afternoon.