I heard The Sixteen in concert on 9/26/20 (the concert was live on 9/19/20). It was presented as part of the VOCES8 Live From London series. It was the eighth concert in the series and the first not to take place in the VOCES8 Centre at St. Anne and St. Agnes Church. The Sixteen’s concert was done at Kings Place, a rather anonymous looking concert hall in London.
The acoustic difference was startling. Kings Place sounded dry and dull, especially compared to St. Anne and St. Agnes Church. It took a while to get used to, but you know me, I’m a chronic optimist, I always have to turn my frown upside down. I decided that the dry acoustic gave a sharper profile to the ensemble itself, and to the eleven individual singers.
Yes, eleven singers, and they’re called The Sixteen. My friend Ali and I saw The Sixteen in concert in New York years ago. They filed onstage and I counted the heads as we were applauding. I turned to Ali and said, “But there are only eleven…?” She said, “Yeah, they’re incredible musicians, but they can’t f-cking count.”
They opened with a Renaissance piece, “Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae” by F. Anerio. Lovely, warm, with the parts beautifully delineated. This led to “The Deer’s Cry” by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. I was excited to see this on the program - - it had been done by VOCES8 in the first concert on the series, back in August. It’s a gorgeous piece.
The conductor of The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, inserted excerpts from T. S. Eliot’s *Murder in the Cathedral* in between sets of music. These were read by his daughter, actor Antonia Christophers. She did a lovely job of reading them, she has an attractive speaking voice and clearly comes out of The Great Tradition of the English Theatre, but I have to say that the excerpts were a little too long. We’re looking for a little sorbet in between courses, not a full, separate course…
One of the highlights of the new venue was seeing the audience! There was an audience at St. Anne’s and St. Agnes, but we never saw them. At Kings Place the audience was arranged in pairs with an empty seat in between each pair. Every once in a while there was a single person with an empty seat on either side. And an empty row between each occupied row. There were a few shots from the singers’ point of view, so we could see Christophers conducting, and in these shots we could see that the audience members were wearing masks.
Another pairing of Renaissance and Pärt: “O Virgo prudentissima” by Josquin des Prez and “Da pacem Domine” by Pärt. The group seemed to have settled into their sound, or maybe I just got used to them and the new acoustic. It felt to me like in each case the Pärt was more interesting and more delicious than the Renaissance piece that preceded it. But I suppose the Renaissance piece did a perfect job of setting it up! One other note about the Renaissance pieces - - their performances were beautiful but a little vague, a little lackluster. They brought out none of the divine inspiration you want to hear in this music. The Josquin was an exception, it seemed to stir them up in a welcome way.
“Morning Star” by Arvo Pärt was the highlight of the program, a fascinating composition performed with clarity and flavor. Pärt’s writing in this piece has a disarming mixture of austerity and overt emotionalism - - like Catherine Deneuve in a Buñuel movie! The Sixteen brought out both of these qualities with wonderful clarity. Here's the actual performance from 9/19/20:
The final Victoria piece was sumptuous.
“Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae” by F. Anerio
“The Deer’s Cry” by Arvo Pärt
“Here let us stand” from *Murder in the Cathedral* [St Thomas Becket d1170] by TS Eliot
“O Virgo prudentissima” by Josquin des Prez
“Da pacem Domine” by Arvo Pärt
“Does the bird sing in the South?” from *Murder in the Cathedral* by TS Eliot
“Libera nos I” by John Sheppard
“Pater noster / Ave Maria” by Josquin des Prez
“Morning Star” by Arvo Pärt
“We praise Thee, O God” from Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot
“Litaniae Beatae Mariae” by Tomás Luis de Victoria