REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The City Musick at York Early Music Festival

The City Musick: Twenty, rather than seven, played at York Early Music Festival last Friday in a Renaissance Big Band line-up

York Early Music Festival: The City Musick, The Count and The Duke: A Renaissance Big Band, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, July 7

IN the YEMF brochure, director William Lyons said: “With a band of 20 musicians, The City Musick presents a homage to the iconic recordings made by David Munrow in the 1970s, but with a modern twist”. Which is exactly what we got, with a jazzy title too. The Count and The Duke: A Renaissance Big Band.

Praetorius’s opening rustic welcome was indicative of what was to come: gorgeous sounds, ripples of florid decoration, music of such intimacy and balance. Balance, I think, is key here.

The Renaissance Big Band was arranged into groups of soft instruments:  strings (the splendid Monteverdi String Band) and woodwind, plus the (not very) loud instruments – brass, keyboard, lute and theorbo, and percussion.

This also gives us a link to the ‘big band’ set-ups of the great Duke Ellington and Count Basie that were also grouped into instrumental sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm.

The way the instrumental groups engaged with each other throughout the concert was especially rewarding. Firstly, the alternating loud and soft instrumental groups meant that these contrasting exchanges were inherently employed to gentle dramatic effect.

They also reinforced the Renaissance dance music, adding another (gentle) dramatic layering. For example, the second-half collection of Masque arrangements of Robert Johnson, John Adson and William Brade.

Not only did the opening string section pass on the musical baton to the brass section, but there was also role play involved in these courtly dances. The strings asked the brass players to join the courtly dance; the music was seductive and invitational. And readily accepted.

We were also able to enjoy the musical moment as the individual ensembles embellished their own musical offerings before the exchanges and then collectively signing off. We could also savour the timbres, the instrumental tone colour.

Like the delightful intimacy of strings and theorbo in Praetorius’s Courante, the woodwind and percussion in the Suite des Bransles arrangement and the extraordinary wind sound when joined by the uniquely rasping racket in Susato’s Suite des Rondes.

The arrangement of Thoinot Arbeau’s Suite des Branles was arguably the most memorable contribution of the first set, with its ground-bass ushering in other instrumental players, metric (hemiola), syncopated gear changes and infectious foot-tapping music designed to put a smile on your face. Or as Count Basie put it: “If you play a tune and a person don’t tap their feet, don’t play the tune.”

Then there were the John Skene English Country Dances arrangements. They were performed by bagpipes and a hurdy gurdy. Bagpipes, surely not! But music for the original country dances of the (English) villages were indeed played by a bagpipe. Don’t know about the hurdy gurdy. The pastoral, chocolatey tunes were a delight.

And then we had the promised modern twist, notably in William Lyons’s arrangement of Maurizio Cazzati and Tarquinio Merula’s Ciaccona. Here a simple ground-bass is joined by weaving lines of string variations, then by the other players in a sound world reminiscent of Pachelbel’s Canon. Maybe. There also seemed to be echoes of the Penguin Café Orchestra and minimalism: the signing-off with striking woodblock hits and pizzicato strings recalled music by John Adams. Well, it did for me anyway.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on University of York Choir, The 24 and The City Musick, 18/3/2023

Conductor Robert Hollingworth

University of York Choir, The 24 and The City Musick, Central Hall, University of York, March 18

WELL, this looked interesting, but then any concert with a strapline “Reining in the Donkey” and curated and conducted by Robert Hollingworth would be.

Last Saturday’s concert was a highly imaginative programme focusing on Orazio Benevoli’s mass, Missa Si Deus Pro Nobis, dovetailed with music by Andrea Gabrieli, Vincenzo Ugolino, Palestrina and Frescobaldi.

The mass was written for eight choirs supported by 15 continuo instrumentalists. These would be placed in stalls above and around the congregation, thus setting up a dramatic, sumptuous surround-sound extravaganza.

In York Minster this would have been a real musical event, but in the Central Hall, with an acoustic as dry as sandpaper, it wasn’t. And nor could it have been. Right from the choral opening of Vincenzo Ugolino’s Quae Est Ista, the university choir sounded cruelly exposed and vulnerable.

With all the forces at play, however, the singers grew in confidence through the Kyrie and Gloria of the Benevoli Mass. The choral exchanges of the lovey suspended sequences in the Credo worked well.

The introduction of the amazing contrabass shawm, played by Nicholas Perry, was quite an experience. I thought it sounded like a musical equivalent of the butler Lurch from The Addams Family but it is probably best described by Paul McCreesh as “the finest fartophone in all music”.

Not all the choral detail was in place; the rhythmic passages in the Credo, for example, were not as crisp or accurate as they should have been, but the extensive tutti sections at the end of each of the movements were confident and satisfying. Indeed, the Agnus Dei conclusion was luxurious, quite delightful.

The instrumental movements performed by The City Musick players were, obviously, imperious. Catherine Pierron’s chamber organ performance of Frescobaldi’s Toccata No.3, weaving webs of magical tapestry, was breathtaking.

There was also a wonderful, confident Agnus Dei by Palestrina (arr. Francesco Soriano) sung by The 24, a choir clearly at the top of their game, with crystal-clear part singing throughout. Very impressive.

Anyway, back to the donkey. The technique is a musical joke where busy antiphonal exchanges (runaway, out-of-control donkeys) combined with long plainchant melodies (hapless, possibly fat, cardinals pulling on the reins). Excellent.

I get the impression that Orazio Benevoli’s Missa Si Deus Pro Nobis is not only a hidden gem, but now a discovered masterpiece. I would love to hear Robert Hollingworth curate and direct another performance. But not here, not at the Central Hall. Please.

Review by Steve Crowther

University of York Choir to perform joyful ‘Colossal Baroque’ Roman music at Central Hall with The 24 and The City Musick

Robert Hollingworth: University of York Choir musical director

THE University of York Choir join forces with The 24 and The City Musick for an evening of the “Colossal Baroque” music of 17th century Rome at Central Hall, University of York, on March 18.

Under the direction of Robert Hollingworth, the 7.30pm programme combines Orazio Benevoli’s Missa Di Deus Pro Nobis for four choirs with what the choir’s musical director describes as “other monstrous works” by Benevoli’s Venetian teacher, Vincenzo Ugolini, among others.

Almost forgotten today, Benevoli (1605-1672) was one of the most important Roman Baroque composers of his day. “He wrote glorious, large scale, multi-choir music that included a technique called ‘reining in the donkey’, in which the lower parts move hastily underneath a static soprano line, supposedly like a priest sitting on and trying to hold back a frenetic donkey,” says Hollingworth. “Think King Of Kings in the Hallelujah Chorus,” he suggests.

The 24 is a University of York music department ensemble, conducted by Hollingworth, founder/director of I Fagiolini. The City Musick comprises cornett, sackbut, dulcian, strings, organs and theorbos.

Tickets for this “wonderfully joyful and uplifting event” are on sale at: