Stile Antico, the London-based vocal group, brings Elizabethan music to Town Hall, including a once-secret William Byrd piece composed for England’s Tudor-era Catholic underground.

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“Emotion” is a word that figures strongly in the vocabulary of Kate Ashby, co-founder of the famed English early-music vocal group Stile Antico.

She used the word at least five times while explaining why the ensemble’s April 9 concert — “The Touches of Sweet Harmony: The Musical World of William Shakespeare” — is about far more than beguiling melodies and surface sheen.

“Shakespeare is still regarded as the English language’s greatest playwright, and probably the greatest writer ever,” she said. “There’s a great attraction to his words and the emotion behind them. His characterizations of people still resonate today, and justly deserve to be celebrated.”

Concert preview

Stile Antico: ‘The Touches of Sweet Harmony: The Musical World of William Shakespeare’

8 p.m. Saturday, April 9 (with 7 p.m. lecture), at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $20-$35 (206-325-7066 or

The award-winning, Grammy-nominated ensemble designed a Shakespeare tribute for the 400th anniversary of his death. The program marks a departure for the group that has, up to now, mainly performed sacred music in the “old style” (“stile antico”) of Renaissance polyphony.

Not only is Stile Antico experimenting with reducing its personnel on some pieces to one voice per part, but has also rescored solo-voiced lute songs for multipart choir. In addition, it has commissioned new works from British composer Huw Watkins and America’s genre-bending hotshot Nico Muhly.

“The music we’re singing is very beautiful to listen to,” Ashby said. “But there’s also a lot of emotion behind it. We’re very keen that we’re not just presenting beautiful-sounding museum pieces, and that they have some real emotion behind them.”

Ashby said she and the 11 other members of Stile Antico love Renaissance polyphony partly because of its democratic qualities. As opposed to the hierarchy of melody over accompaniment that characterizes music from later periods, all parts in Renaissance polyphony are of equal significance. The way tempo and dynamics shift, while voices weave around each other, makes the music fresh and appealing to contemporary ears.

“We find early music especially rewarding, since we work in a democratic way, without a conductor,” she explained. “We also have a lot of artistic freedom in much of this repertoire, because the composers only give us the text and the notes. Many of the decisions about how to perform them are made by us.”

This is certainly the case for the new works on the program. Muhly’s “Gentle Sleep,” commissioned for Stile Antico by England’s prestigious Wigmore Hall, conveys the essence of King Henry VI’s complaints of insomnia by distributing sung text around the voices, and weaving the lines together in a hypnotic manner.

In a different style, Watkins’ “The Phoenix and the Turtle” sets one of Shakespeare’s strangest and most obscure poems to energetic, driving, rhythmically complex and distinctly modern music.

“It’s all about birds and the funeral of a bird, but it’s clearly an allegory of some sort whose meaning is still heavily debated,” Ashby said. “One school of thought is that it’s about two Catholic martyrs, and Shakespeare may have sympathized with the banned and heavily persecuted Catholics. William Byrd, who’s the greatest composer of the Tudor period — and our own favorite composer to sing — was a not-particularly-secret Catholic, who got away with it because he was such a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. It’s thought that Byrd may be the bird in the poem.”

Whether or not Byrd was the bird, the possibility has given Stile Antico the opportunity to net several pieces by Byrd for the program. The longest, “Tristitia et anxietas” (“Sadness and Worry”), is a motet written for England’s secret Catholic community.

“Like all good pieces by Byrd, it’s fantastically rhetorical,” Ashby said. “Byrd really manages to capture the emotion of the text by the way he builds up phrases to a really exciting, final climactic appeal for mercy.”

Once again, Stile Antico replaces the stereotype of English reserve with a commitment to the emotions that animate their repertoire.