On a fine, sunny Mother’s Day, the Voce Camerata and Consort visited St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. This intimate chapel surrounded by lovely gardens is nestled in North Raleigh (off Wade Avenue) and set the tone for a springtime concert of Renaissance art songs. If Mother’s Day and springtime weren’t enough, there was also the 450th anniversary of John Dowland’s birth to celebrate. Dowland was a popular composer in the 14th and 15th centuries, known as the “Father of the Art Song,” as choir member and spokesman Keith Mankin explained.
The program began with the traditional “Sumer is Icumen In,” a lively a cappella canon written in about 1250 by an anonymous composer. This song is important in music history because it is the earliest known example of six-part polyphony, or six voices coming together to sing harmony at the same time. It also reflected a shift from open harmonies based on the interval of a fifth to our more familiar third-based harmonies, as director Lynn Hudson explained. However, she continued the concert by joking: “Now the music history lecture is over. Please leave your quizzes on the table as you leave!”
The program continued, establishing the feel of traditional Renaissance music. “Down the Hills Corinna Trips,” a song by Thomas Bateson, had a lovely blend of the singers’ voices and used characteristic word painting of the era: the setting of the music reflected the lyrics, with two voices singing the phrase “came two by two,” with another voice joining in on “and three by three.” Similarly in “April is in My Mistress’ Face” by Thomas Morley, the harmony started with a pleasant sound as the lyrics told how beautiful the love interest was, but then the chords shifted gradually to sound more and more minor until the last line described the woman’s cold heart
Although the songs were historically important, the messages were timeless, carrying traditional messages of the hope of springtime and the despair of unrequited love. “The Sweet and Merry Month of May” by William Byrd, another very famous Renaissance composer, sang of the age-old joyfulness felt in the springtime. The feelings of pleasure and youthfulness felt in the spring were highlighted by tinkling finger cymbals and a hand drum.
The women then exited the stage, leaving Keith Mankin, Jaap Folmer, Larry Hubbard, and Jason Pace to serenade the audience women with Morley’s “Good Morrow, Fair Ladies” which includes the timely phrase, "Was never such a Maying, since May delights first decaying." The men didn’t have as smooth of a blend as the full ensemble – some of their voices were full and resonant, while others were a little thin and nasally – but their performance was charming and flirty, giving the song enough character to make up for a little shakiness.
Next, Christopher Tye’s “Rubem Quem” was performed by the group as a recorder consort, or ensemble representing a full family of recorders, from bass up to soprano with a Renaissance flute in the middle. The Renaissance flute was made of wood and, like its modern successor, was played to the side, as opposed to the recorders, played vertically.
“Leave Now Mine Eyes” sung by Judith Hillman and Keith Mankin was next. This song, composed again by Morley, was soft and mellow, with the two voices imitating each other and weaving sinuous melodic lines. Following in stark contrast was “Lord Hayes’ Masque” by Thomas Campion, sung by Hope Horton and accompanied by recorder consort. The recorders served to outline the harmonies, but were simple, leaving the soloist to shine.
John Farmer’s well-known “Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone” came next, again using clever word painting on phrases such as “up and down,” “sitting all alone,” and “fell a-kissing.” The more advanced syncopated rhythms were precise and expertly performed. The reference to the mythological lovers Phyllis and Amyntas was repeated later in the concert in Tomas Tompkin’s “See, See the Shepherd’s Queen,” a clever choice of programming by the ensemble.
The next two songs lifted word painting to a whole new level and also evoked the classic imagery of birds, which have inspired musical works for centuries. “Sweet Suffolk Owl” by Thomas Vautor and “Of All the Birds” by John Bartlet both evoked birdcalls through words like “te-whit, te-whoo” and “yet, yet, yet.” The full Voce Camerata ensemble sang with the swiftness of birds and the lightness of spring. Then the women took the stage, singing a beautiful rendition of John Wilbye’s “Away, Thou Shalt Not Love Me.” Next was another pretty duet by Thomas Morley, “O Thou that Art so Cruel,” between Judith Hillman and Keith Mankin.
The second half of the concert featured a selection of John Dowland songs, beginning with the lovely recorder consort dance piece “My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe.” John Dowland, as Mankin explained, was the first composer to truly accompany the voice line with instrumental parts that acted independently from the melody. Mankin then sang “Flow, My Tears,” accompanied by Jaap Folmer on the flute and Larry Hubbard on the viole, an early ancestor to the cello, both of which were played in a convincing historic style. The other John Dowland songs included “Come Again,” “Clear or Cloudy,” “Burst Forth My Tears,” and “See, See the Shepherd’s Queen.”
Ending the concert in contrast to all the secular songs was William Byrd’s hymn “Laudibus in Sanctus.” The ensemble’s performance was enjoyable and convincing, putting Renaissance music into a more tangible perspective.