Faith, meet reason

New York Polyphony at University of Dayton

By CC Hutten

Photo: New York Polyphony will perform at Church of the Holy Angels on Nov. 20; photo: Jiyang Chen

For one night only, world-renowned vocal chamber ensemble New York Polyphony will challenge Dayton audiences to contemplate the relationship between faith and reason.

On Thursday, Nov. 20, the group will perform at 8 p.m. at the Church of the Holy Angels as part of the University of Dayton’s ArtsLIVE program.

New York Polyphony consists of four men: Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass. The quartet’s 2013 album Times Go by Turns earned a Grammy nomination in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category and has been showcased in festivals and concert series throughout North America and Europe, including such places as Dartmouth College, Stanford University and Mount Royal University in Calgary.

According to UD’s ArtsLIVE director, Eileen Carr, two things came together for New York Polyphony’s performance: a recommendation and a realization.

“I’ve known about them for years by their reputation,” Carr said. “Andrea Chenoweth-Wells, a voice professor, recommended the group to me. I looked up their programming and saw they had one called ‘Faith and Reason,’ just like the Graul Chair theme here.”

Faith and Reason is the theme of the university’s Rites/Rights/Writes 2014-15 program, declared by the Graul Chair in Arts and Languages, which is involved in various events throughout the academic year.

According to vocalist Craig Phillips, before New York Polyphony’s founding in 2006, the vocal quartet started out as friends and musicians in the New York scene. Over the course of “passing” gigs, the men discovered their mutual love for baroque music.

“We were getting some professional opportunities, but wanted to go further,” Phillips said. “We decided we should get together and sing.”

Soon after, the group got a “lucky break” from a producer – Public Radio International wanted a group to sing Christmas carols.

After hearing their recorded songs, the group “looked at each other and decided to keep doing this,” Phillips said. “Luckily, the producer thought so, too … So we kind of had a record deal before we were a group. Now eight years on, we just released our sixth album, Sing thee Nowell, in September.”

Most recently, the group premiered the piece “Missa Charles Darwin” at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. It was composed by Gregory Brown, commissioned for a Mass setting and based on Charles Darwin’s texts. Brown currently serves in Western Massachusetts as the founding artistic director of the Smith College Festival of Sound & Space.

“Missa Charles Darwin” started out as a collaborative idea with Brown, according to Phillips.

“We knew there would be some controversy with the structure, but we never intended it to be political,” he said. “We encourage people not to think of it that way. It’s more about starting a conversation and the supposed conflict or relationship between faith and reason.”

This type of conversation is perfect for a university setting.

“I like to champion what I call ‘adventurous chamber.’ It’s important to be out of the box,” Carr said. “At a university, there’s room to experience, to challenge students, faculty and community to think a little differently . All of our programming is about not duplicating what’s presented somewhere else.”

Phillips said the piece is a way to celebrate works of great human achievement with sacred words, especially because he discovered Darwin’s words are, as he put it, “surprisingly poetic.”

The program is in sync with what UD is about, according to Carr, because faith is taken seriously at the university, but it is studied within an environment that supports higher learning.

“What inspires me more is [Darwin’s] ability to sense the interconnectedness of life on our planet,” Brown wrote on his website. “Likewise, there is an interconnectedness between the movements of this work – sometimes obvious, sometimes quite subtle.”

Brown and Phillips used the conventions of a traditional five-movement Roman Catholic Mass to revere Darwin’s body of work. Phillips said he and Brown worked to preserve the character of the Mass movements, using the poetic gestures in Darwin’s works.

“It’s built off of tradition, off things [audiences] know,” Phillips said. “It was easy to keep [the] flow and logic of mass intact because so much of what [Darwin] writes is really not controversial. Science and faith serve different functions, but they do not have to be mutually exclusive.”

Overall, Phillips said Brown successfully synthesized old and new traditions.

“Some of what [audiences will] hear in Greg’s music is advanced harmonic language,” Phillips said. “But he still based it on the framework of other functional mass settings that established tradition of polyphonic writing.”

“[Brown is] asking us to think about our lives and our place in the world,” Carr said. “If an hour of music can get us to do that, I think that’s a big gift.”

“Its a window into a new world,” Phillips said. “It will challenge [audiences], but in a good way, an intellectual and artistic way.”

New York Polyphony has some important commissions down the pike, Phillips said. The vocal quartet has sung in 34 of the 50 states and plans to continue touring in the U.S. and Europe in the near future while also working on plans to record a new album to be released in late summer or early fall of 2015.

“We always want to take the next step,” Phillips said. “[‘Missa Charles Darwin’] correlates with Greg’s attempt to mix the whole idea of evolution of prototypes and advancing progress. It musically mirrors that. We don’t want to defy tradition – we want to evolve tradition.”

New York Polyphony will perform on Thursday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m. at Church of the Holy Angels, located at 1322 Brown St. in Dayton after pre-concert introductory remarks by the group at 7 p.m. General admission is $16. Tickets for UD faculty, staff and alumni are $12, and tickets for students and youth are $8. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance at For more information, please call 937.229.2545 or visit or

Reach DCP freelance writer CC Hutten at

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Reach DCP freelance writer CC Hutten at

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