The nine-man vocal ensemble Renaissance Men (popularly known as RenMen) wrapped up its inaugural season with a pair of performances, April 10th at St. Paul’s Church, Brookline, and April 11th in Gordon Chapel at Boston’s Old South Church (this reviewer heard the latter). At pains to show that their name indicates their embrace of a multiplicity of musical genres instead of an exclusive devotion to Renaissance polyphony, their “Branches” offered a “journey from the church . . . to the tavern.” From the music library of the Harvard Glee Club, they drew on a gold mine of male choral literature: a single sacred anthem, folk song arrangements (one religious-themed), some gems of the German Männerchor tradition, and a group of drinking songs of various nationalities. The RenMen comprise tenors Kilian Mooney, Alexander Nishibun, Eric Christopher Perry (also conductor), and Peter C. Schilling; baritones Sam Kreidenweis, Dominick (DJ) Matsko, and Will Prapestis; and basses Brian Church and Anthony Burkes Garza.
Randall Thompson’s beloved “Alleluia” opened in an unattributed arrangement (possibly the composer’s own) for men’s voices which necessarily narrowed the compass of the mixed-chorus original by an octave. The first half of the piece was sung antiphonally, a quartet at the front of the chapel answered by another from behind the audience. The required octave displacements of the arrangement led to some interesting “counter-melodies” not generally heard in the SATB original, but the smaller compass also caused one or two instances of less than lucid harmonies when vibrato was allowed to increase even slightly. The performance was notable for its nuanced dynamics, balance, and handsome sound.
In the early 1920s, Harvard Glee Club commissioned Gustav Holst’s arrangement for men’s voices of five of his Six Choral Folk Songs, Op. 36. “I Sowed the Seeds of Love” uses a horticultural metaphor to counsel patience in choosing a mate; this featured the solo baritone of Will Prapestis and limned an impressive emotional arc. It proceeded without pause into the austere beauty of “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John”, a bedtime (possibly deathbed) prayer; Holst’s unadorned arrangement and RenMen’s chaste rendering were deeply moving. “The Song of the Blacksmith” offered a sharp contrast, reveling in its own power as pounding chords punctuated the melodic line—sheer fun for performers and audience alike. “I Love My Love” is a well-known folk song of bittersweet beauty: the parents of young Nancy’s sweetheart thwart the couple’s love for a time by sending their son to sea; Nancy ends up in Bedlam (the insane asylum), but her beloved returns to rescue her and they are married. RenMen convincingly portrayed Nancy’s wistful laments, her frightened confusion at the abrupt return of her man, his passion declaring his love, and their calm contentment in marriage. The final folk song, “Swansea Town”, also widely known, is a sailor’s bluff farewell to his darling, also named Nancy (was the song order an ironic joke on Holst’s part?), as he goes to cross the ocean “in hopes” to return to Swansea . . . sometime. Holst contributed some brilliant sound-painting to evoke an approaching storm on the sea, an opportunity the singers fully exploited. Although the first three stanzas end with the sailor’s hope to return to Swansea Town, the last ends with: “. . . we’ll make this tavern [overseas] roar/And when our money is all gone we’ll go to sea for more.” Leaving well behind the refinement and sensitivity of the first, second, and fourth songs, RenMen gave us a lusty tribute to machismo and male bonding as well as a preview of drinking songs to come.
The next group featured examples with a nocturnal theme of the German Romantic men’s-chorus literature, a genre that doesn’t get its full due today. Franz Schubert perhaps wrote the largest number of these works, but a wide array of other composers contributed as well, as RenMen demonstrated. Though largely remembered as an organ composer, Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) also composed some very fine choral works. His “Johannisnacht” (Midsummer’s Eve) is an exquisite setting of a beautiful text, painting the splendor of a summer night in the mountains, dotted with the glow of many small fires, as the poet looks down to the river Rhine. (Rheinberger’s very name alludes to the Rhine and mountains.) This sole accompanied work on the program featured Dominick Matsko contributing a rippling piano accompaniment while a vocal quartet gave an expressive account with deftly tapered cadences. “Abendständchen” (Evening Serenade), by Max Reger (1873-1916), has his typical hyper-chromatic harmony, but one could hear that his choral style is well within the same tradition as Rheinberger’s. Matsko was the baritone soloist here—though “first among equals” might be closer to the mark—singing with warmth and tenderness if not quite flawless German. He and his colleagues maintained commendable intonation amid Reger’s harmonic complexities. In Franz Schubert’s “Mondenschein” (Moonlight), a quintet with tenor soloist Alexander Nishibun created a warm atmosphere with a lullaby’s gently rocking rhythmic pattern but also a contrastingly dramatic episode in the middle. The full ensemble in circular formation sang Richard Strauss’s “Traumlicht” (Dream Light) with admirably sustained long phrases, solid tuning, and overall elegance while conjuring the aura of a dream. Gordon Chapel’s plush acoustics particularly rewarded the very deep bass notes in the final phrase.
Drinking songs of different periods and nations constituted the final group, and illustrated what a surprising variety of approaches exist within this category. Throughout the set the singers successfully provided the choral virtues of intelligibility and balance while avoiding any fatal prissiness. Proceeding chronologically, RenMen first sang “Tru, tru, trut avant il faut boire” (Tra la la! We Must Drink) by J. Richafort (c. 1480-c.1547), urging us to drink now because afterward we’ll be nothing but bones and shrouds. This fascinating fusion of sophisticated Renaissance polyphony and coarseness (some Low French was heard) began in unison and progressed to imitative counterpoint. Felix Mendelssohn’s contribution, “Liebe und Wein” (Love and Wine), in part took the form of a question-and-answer dialogue between baritone Sam Kreidenweis and the other singers, e.g., “What was plaguing your poor heart? —The pangs of love! . . . “What healed you from your pain? —Aged wine!” Kreidenweis often bent the pitch drunkenly to great comic effect. In the final stanza the full chorus again pulled off the paradox of heavy drinkers calling for more wine while maintaining tight ensemble in Mendelssohn’s virtuoso writing. The exotic item on the program was Zoltan Kodaly’s “Mulató Gajd” (Revelry Song), sung in Hungarian, a rowdy celebration of the harvest, praising strong wine and “roast thrush”. Despite the exceptionally foreign language, RenMen impressively conveyed the spirit of the words. In Francis Poulenc’s “Chanson à boire” (Drinking Song), another Harvard Glee Club commission, the comedy grew still broader as the level of simulated inebriation rose. Nasal vowels at times became very nasal indeed as the group praised, with faux poetic phrases, the charms of the hostess who brings them booze. Near the end one member of the group, bass Brian Church, went off on his own drunken cadenza (“I’ve drunk too much, but I’ll stop now! Yah! Yah!”), supplied the very deep foundation to the final chord and let out a resounding belch before “passing out” on the floor—the perfect set-up for “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” The arrangement by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw is perhaps a bit overly clever for the material, but it makes an excellent display piece for the full ensemble (after a stanza or so, Church “sobered up” sufficiently to stand up and rejoin the singing). Once again RenMen found the perfect balance of skill and intoxication. Especially fun was the section in uniformly staggering rhythm, suggesting that the sailor of the title is merely the most hammered of all the sailors. The well-earned standing ovation brought a single encore: a high-voltage arrangement of the spiritual “I’m Gonna Ride in the Chariot in the Morning, Lord” whose final chord—with very high tenor notes—made Gordon Chapel ring.
My only complaint is with the printed program. Since the original compositions are collaborations of composers and poets, both should get their full due, i.e., names listed in full. Likewise, any piece that includes a solo should have the singer’s name listed (I would like to have cited more of them in this review, but I don’t personally know most of the RenMen). I’d suggest as well that since men’s-chorus music is infrequently heard, a little more information (printed or spoken) on the programmed works would be of interest and benefit.
My reaction to my first hearing of Renaissance Men was one of excited pleasure. In solos one can hear that these men, trained singers all, have quite individual voices, but when united they blend smoothly into a pleasing whole under Eric Christopher Perry’s unobtrusive but effective direction. Whether in compositions written expressly for male chorus or in arrangements, they move, amuse, edify, and entertain. Given the semi-neglect heretofore of much of this repertoire, I look forward to future RenMen seasons as they broaden and deepen their repertoire.