Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde
The Renaissance Voices Christmas concerts, conducted by Harold Stover, have become so popular over the years that the large Cathedral Church of St. Luke was still about half full on Saturday night, in spite of snow and bitter cold that cancelled other events.
Those who braved the elements were treated to a warm, traditional selection of a cappella vocal music from around the world and across the centuries, interspersed with readings from poets as diverse as Carl Sandburg and Rainer Maria Rllke. Wintery works by Rilke and Heinrich Heine were read in German, followed by English translations.
The word traditional is appropriate because even the modern works on the program were modeled after Renaissance and Baroque music. beginning with “Hail, Lady. sea-star bright,” (Ave, maris stella) by English composer Kathryn Rose (b. 1980), sung in Latin and built around a bass line that sounds like Gregorian chant, but more melodious. The higher voices weave a tapestry of sound around this solid foundation. It was compared to another Ave Maria by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (1510-1556), and held its own very well.
Two German composers who seemed almost mirror images of each other were Hugo Distler (1908-1942) and Johannes Eccard (1553-1611). The choir alternated between the two, and just when one thought a recognizable style had been established, another of the five motets would blur the line. Some were lively, some were like chants and some were almost fugal in their polyphony, but all were musical and deeply felt.
The first half of the program ended with a rapid, rhythmical “Facta est cum angelo,” by Italian composer Girolamo Baglioni (c, 1575-1608).
Opening the second half was “Come ye lofty, come ye lowly” by Gustave Holst (1874-1934), another imitation, this time of a medieval English Christmas carol, that couldn’t be told from he original.
An American work, “The angel’s carol,” by Crys Armbrust (b. 1957), sets a text by Nahum Tate (1625-1715) using the early shaped-note technique of choral singing, in which the shape of the written notes dictates the harmonies to decorate a hymn tune,
The result is sometimes strange, like shifting northern-lights veils of sound, but always effective.
The program ended with a triumphant “Hodie Christus natus est” by Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621). Following a standing ovation, the choir sang an encore of three verses of “Silent Night” in the original German, wrapping up a fine and appropriate Christmas gift.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.