This was the first outing for Voices of a New Renaissance, a consort of professional musicians from the region with the guiding principal of vocal and linear beauty found in music from the renaissance period. The ensemble was organized by tenor Nathan Leaf, the Director of Choral Activities at NC State University and and also Choir Director at St. Stephens Church where this inaugural performance occurred. The soprano is Margaret Neil Hammer, who has been heard frequently in the Washington, D.C. area and appeared as a featured soloist with the Oratorio Society of Virginia. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Seiger is a member of the voice faculty at NC State and has appeared with the North Carolina Opera. David Faircloth has performed widely in opera and oratorio including appearances at the Washington National Opera and the Met.
The quartet of singers was joined by harpsichordist Tom Koch, who is professor of music theory at NC State and is frequently heard as keyboard accompanist throughout the area. Playing the lute, renaissance guitar and viol (not at the same time) was Dan Smith who has over the past several years focused on Renaissance and Baroque performance on the lute, archlute and baroque guitar.
The program opened with the warmest welcome to a concert performance you could imagine: The chorus “Welcome to all the Pleasures” from Henry Purcell’s 1683 Ode for St Cecelia’s Day. The harpsichord, lute and three lower voices began full-voiced in a nicely blended and balanced sound to be later topped off with a shimmering soprano entrance. This was followed by two additional choruses from the ode.
Next the vocalists performed two outstanding motets from the high renaissance. First was Tomas Luis De Victoria’s gorgeous “O Magnum Mysterium”, followed by “Sicut Cervus” by Palestrina. These were beautifully done with skilled singing, though it did seem the bass line was a bit over-predominant. This will no doubt be worked out in time as the group becomes more accustomed to their blend and balance.
Two baroque duets added variety to the program. From Bach’s cantata, S. 196 we heard Leaf and Faircloth perform “Der Herr Segne Euch,” and Hammer and Seiger sing the familiar and beloved “Laudamus Te” from Vivaldi’s Gloria.
Illustrating the reality that music of the renaissance is very relevant to our own time, Voices of a New Renaissance sang three twentieth-century motets inspired by chant and polyphony. Two selections were from Maurice Duruflé’s Four Motets on Gregorian Themes. “Tantum ergo” and “Tu Es Petrus” demonstrated the purity of line and otherworldly quality this music so well expresses. John Tavener’s “The Lamb” showed the stylistic influence of renaissance music in a composition by a contemporary living composer.
The first half of the concert concluded with two more apropos choruses from Purcell’s Ode of 1683.
In the second half of the concert we were treated to what was described in the program as “A Pleasurable Offering of Songs with Lute or Harpsichord.” Several of the songs were by John Dowland, including the haunting “Come Again” and “Now Oh Now I Needs Must Part,” also known as the Frog Galliard. There were a couple of songs by Purcell and a couple by Thomas Campion, and woven into the mix were a virtuosic Passacaglia by Handel performed by Koch and a charming and challenging lute solo by Hans Neusidler performed by Smith. There was a solo from each of the four singers and a couple of duets. Of special note was “Jack and Joan” by Campion, a song about the pleasures of an ordinary couple. It began with a verse sung by the soprano accompanied by the harpsichord, which was followed with a verse sung by the contralto accompanied by the lute. In due course the tenor and baritone joined in with full accompaniment of both instruments to complete this rollicking piece.
The program, as one can see, was thoughtfully varied in choice and presentation of selections. The concert occurring on the first Sunday in Advent provided an opening to conclude with three carols from the renaissance or earlier: “In Dulci Jubilo,” “What Child is This” (Greensleves) and “The Joys Seven” in an arrangement by Haig Mardirasian.
As Voices of a New Renaissance welcomed so warmly their audience with the opening of Purcell’s Ode, we welcome them to the generous mix of musical offerings in this area. They fill a need for this music with its purity and beauty of melodic line, its intimate comment on a variety of elements of life and its reminder of the vitality of the roots of all western music. The professionalism and creative imagination of this ensemble holds great promise. When you see an announcement of their next appearance, make it a point to go hear them.