The London-based vocal ensemble Stile Antico made its Chicago debut at Rockefeller Chapel Friday night under the auspices of the University of Chicago Presents series. The 12-member consort’s program was entitled “In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile,” and made clear why Stile Antico has garnered international acclaim in its field of Renaissance polyphony.
The majority of composers represented on Friday’s program were English Catholics writing during the latter part of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th. At that time Catholics in England were persecuted with varying degrees of severity under the reign of Elizabeth I, leaving them the grim options either to remain in their home country and practice their religion in secret, or flee to continental Europe. Many of the works heard Friday at Rockefeller bespoke the composers’ feelings of loss and isolation under these circumstances.
The program opened with John Dowland’s “Flow my tears,” which immediately evinced Stile Antico’s period bona fides. The group has a luminous collective timbre, and in this work idiomatically leaned into dissonances while keeping its protracted lines elevated. Furthermore, their eschewal of a conductor makes for an organic, seemingly spontaneous presentation, which was a consistently attractive feature of the entire performance.