Although the Renaissance Men have presented their share of older music in their brief existence, their Friday night concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Brookline emphasized the Da Vinci quality in their moniker. The program was entitled “Roots” and was meant to imply “roots music”—that is, the oldest strains in American popular music, from shape note to spirituals to bluegrass.
Nine in number, the Renaissance Men are at their most glorious when singing en masse. They produce a resonant, lustrous tone over which they have tremendous dynamic control. At their loudest they are imposing, overwhelming and impressive; at the other end of the spectrum, their quiet passages are delicate, transparent and assured. The space may be helping them out; St. Paul’s Episcopal in Brookline felt ideal. Very open, with a high chapel ceiling, it had a simple, square, low wood platform in the middle of the space—the sound was vivid and warm, without any excess echo to muddy things.
Of the opening pair, “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” was a contemporary shape note song by Craig Carnahan and “David’s Lamentation” by William Billings was one of the originals, published in the famous 1778 collection The Singing Master’s Assistant. The Men reveled in the bare-knuckled harmony characteristic of this genre, leaning into the voice-leading “mistakes” and producing ringing modal intervals. Carnahan’s adaptation consisted mostly of adding notes to the harmonies that gave them an anachronistic twist without fixing what wasn’t broken. Billings’s tune was sung in a hush, not always the way it is rendered traditionally, but very effective nevertheless. These were combined with three other tunes into a quirky first set. Virgil Thompson’s “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” sounded pale and long-winded coming after the earthier Carnahan and Billings. Philip Bliss’s “It Is Well” (arranged by David Harrington), written in the middle 1800s, is a traditional hymn with some interesting twists; starting off sounding like chant, it had a few moments that distantly recalled barbershop quartet, and had a shameless wrenching modulation to bump up the emotional energy. R. Wilding-White’s arrangement of Copland’s “At The River” from his Old American Songs was eloquent and understated; voices can’t quite reproduce the unique quality of Copland’s orchestration, but the composer’s voice was unmistakable and the performance heartfelt.
The next two sets consisted of newer music based on shape notes and spirituals. It was all very conservative, even a touch predictable, but there were moments of surprise. Mark D. Templeton’s I Will Arise smashes together several separate hymn tunes in a single movement of rapid changes in style and direction that charms and entertains until a somewhat obvious ending. Templeton takes enjoyment in playing with homophony and polyphony, with sudden changes in time signature, and has a winning way with neo-romantic “sweet dissonances” that can too often become cloying. The late Stephen Paulus’s “The Road Home” sounds plain and simple, an understated adaptation of “Prospect” from the shape note collection Southern Harmony. Where Templeton and Carnahan raise the intensity, Paulus subtly relaxes it, but its forlorn quality snuck up on me the end found me deeply moved almost without knowing why. Patricia Van Ness’s “Psalm 121”, commissioned by the Renaissance Men, was more elusive, but had a striking close, with the vocalists’ lines slowly coming into resolution. Two works by Daniel Gawthorp finished the first half: “Into the Woods” a skillful setting of a verbally elaborate poem by Sidney Lanier, and a silky and soothing men’s ensemble setting of his 1991 mixed choir lullaby “Close Now Thine Eyes.” Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time contains five spirituals; arranged by Edward Milner, they formed the first part of the second half of the concert. By this time I was experiencing some fatigue; as beautiful and familiar as these songs are (“Steal Away”, “Nobody Knows”, “Go Down, Moses”, “By and By”, “Deep River”), and despite Tippett’s idiosyncratic way with them the program had been mining the same material for some time, and as attractive and well-polished as the performances were, one began to itch for something a little different.
Well, we got it in the final set, which consisted of six straight-up bluegrass tunes: “The Heavenly Parade”, “Glory Land Boogie”, “I Know I’ll Feel At Home”, “When the Angels Carry Me Home”, “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot” and “Ride The Chariot.” The performers did their best to live up to their name: a guitar, bass and banjo were broken out and the singers provided their own accompaniment. The tunes were pleasing and fun to listen to as a lark, although the rhythm wasn’t quite up to the standard of the genre and the beautiful tone of the Men lacked the incisive nasal quality that makes the words pop. The songs afforded many of the singers a chance to sing solo lines over the group, uncovering the one salient weakness of the ensemble: it was frequently difficult to hear the individuals over the group. This was a problem in similar moments in the other material, but was particularly apparent when the instruments were added to the mix. I found myself having to make recourse to the texts to understand what was being sung. The Men did have something most bluegrass groups do not—that vigorous, powerful massed sound that made the big, swelling endings of the songs robust and exciting, exerting and imparting almost physical lift to the listener. The program explains that all of the players had some youthful exposure to American roots music and they all were visibly enjoying themselves in this repertoire. By the way, the high spirits extended to the program, which contained an exuberantly over the top welcoming note from bass Anthony Burkes Garza (“…we may seem like your quintessentially virile assemblage of brooding a capella beefcake…”) and a cocktail recipe attributed to “HSN”: “The Autumn Sweater” is a mixture of 4 parts bourbon, 2 parts Averna, 1 part maple syrup with bitters, “served on the rocks with a clove-studded orange zest.” The program notes themselves by tenor Eric Christopher Perry were thoughtful and displayed a light but sure academic hand, equally as informed about the appearance of spirituals in the music of Charles Ives as about the provenance of bluegrass vocal arrangements. I don’t know if I’ve seen a performing group that seems to be having quite such a good time while delivering a high-quality performance; I look forward to hearing them in the future to see if they can bring the same effervescence to more restrained repertoire.