Renaissance Voices Lift Christmas Spirits

Renaissance Voices
The Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 20, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

Renaissance Voices’ Christmas concert, conducted by Harold Stover since 2001, just continues to get better. It covers centuries, from the 12th to the 21st, but each selection fits exactly into the whole, like a facet of a highly polished jewel.

The a cappella choir has always been noted for its part singing, marked by precise intervals unobtainable with keyboard accompaniments. The bonus this year was its sheer power. After a plainsong-like “Tota pulchra es Maria,” by Angelina Figus (b. 1957) the fortissimo stanza of “Alma redemptoris mater,” by Felice Anerio (1560-1614) came as a complete (and delightful) surprise.

Most of the first half of the concert was devoted to works praising the Virgin Mary, including an earthy reading from Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and a lively and melodious “Laetatus sum” by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725).

The final set before intermission illustrated the musical development of a different theme– the opening of the heavens to allow God to descend to earth– also spanning centuries, from early plainsong, through a hymn of 1666, to the great “O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf “(Op. 74, No. 2) of Brahms. Renaissance Voices is as much at home in the high classical as in vocal works on a smaller scale.

Following intermission, the choir opened with a lively, joyful rendition of “Jubilate deo” by Cipriano de Rore (c.1515-1565), followed by a mystical poem: “The Beginning of Speech,” by Syrian poet Adunis (b. 1930). The translation, well read by Kirk Read, depicts the confrontation of the poet with his boyhood self, and his wondering what they should talk about.

A set of carols by British composers, “Now may we singen” by Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), “The birth of the Saviour” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and “There is no rose of such virtue,” by John Joubert (b. 1929), introduced a more “Christmasy” element. I particularly liked McDowall’s deceptively simple setting of Middle-English verses, with its effective use of melodic voices over a drone in either the soprano or the bass section. The basses also stood out in “The birth of the Savior.

In conclusion, the power of the choir filled the cathedral in the “Hodie Christus natus est” of Silvio Marazzi (fl. 1570). The encore, following a standing ovation from the large audience, was Robert Shaw’s arrangement of the British carol “The Angel Gabriel.”

In this last review before Christmas, may I wish everyone Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.