In this most Celtic of American cities, a program of music from the British Isles makes a logical offering from one of its plethora of choral ensembles. Laden with diverse styles and dialects from a wide range of composers as well as a world premiere, Renaissance Men stepped ably in on Friday at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, with an assist from the Boston City Singers’ male ensemble, the Fellas.
RenMen graciously offered the opener to the Fellas, conducted by Daniel Ryan, and Thomas Dawkins was pianist, lending support and color for both ensembles. The nattily garbed young men achieved a pleasing blend in their group of three Irish songs and one Scottish. Though they began somewhat nervously, at times anticipating Daniel Ryan’s clear beat, this improved as the set progressed, and the conductor joined the singing in “Molly Malone.” “Fields of Athenry” showcased the notable talents of (unnamed) baritones Patrick Creedon and Wyatt Staton-Todaro.
The RenMen commenced as tenor, Francesco Logozzo, sang a quintessentially Irish ditty a cappella. In “The Last Rose of Summer,” he displayed the beauty and ardor that mark both Italian and Irish tenors. It was curious to go without pause from this old favorite into Dúlamán, a savory but thoroughly contemporary choral setting of a traditional Gaelic folk song by Irish composer Michael McGlynn (b. 1964). This fascinating work about traditional customs for channeled wrack (“dúlamán”), a type of edible seaweed, was marked by quiet rustling rising occasionally to climaxes, mostly triadic harmonies, ever-shifting rhythms, and a very abrupt ending. Les filles des parreisses (Parish Girls) evoked the Channel Islands in French dialect by tenor Eric Christopher Perry (RenMen’s artistic director). Given the unreconstructed sexism of the song’s text, Perry’s enigmatic, quasi-mystical delivery might not have been my choice, but it intrigued.
Rather more in the choral mainstream stood the part song “Music, when soft voices die,” a setting by Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) of a Percy Bysshe Shelley text. If its compositional language sounds undeniably retrograde for 1929, it remains an inspired setting of a splendid poem, full of rich harmonies and delectable textures. The RenMen did themselves proud here with exquisitely balanced chords and unanimity of crescendi and diminuendi. Though many composers took inspiration from folk songs of the British Isles, Ralph Vaughan Williams stands out as the one who did the most song arrangements: for solo voice, unison and mixed voice ensembles, and orchestra. The ensemble gave a noble reading of Ca’ the yowes, his setting of a Robert Burns poem, featuring alternation of the full chorus with baritone solo (Will Prapestis) accompanied by the others humming. The lovely performance made it frustrating to be left adrift without translation of the many words of Burns’s Scots that modern English speakers kenna comprehend.
Tenor Kilian Mooney and pianist Thomas Dawkins enchanted in Benjamin Britten’s famous arrangement of “The Salley Gardens,” as Mooney fervently pressed his music to his chest and intoned ethereally in a quasi-falsetto while Dawkins created a dreamy sonic environment. Britten’s “The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” is considerably more complex, both musically and textually. With an extended text from multiple sources, some dating back to the 16th century, it is a highly accomplished work for male chorus depicting Lady Barnard’s infidelity with Little Musgrave and the dire consequences thereof. Among numerous performance highlights, I select just three: the sudden 180-degree turn of both music and vocal affect when Lady Barnard’s page decides his primary loyalty lies with Lord Barnard and scampers off to spill the beans; the subtle humor when Lord Barnard, having caught the lovers in flagrante delicto, orders Little Musgrave to put his clothes on, for “It shall ne’er be said in my country/I’ve killed a naked man;” and finally, the irony mixed with grief when Lord Barnard blames his own men for not preventing him from also killing “the fairest ladye/That ever did woman’s deed.” Unfortunately, consonants too often became obscure, forcing me to refer with some regularity to the text
Scattered in various parts of the sanctuary, the men sang “Elgin,” a brief bit of traditional Gaelic psalmody (Psalm 79:11) in English translation. Their putative word-painting at the end was bewitching, then the singers gradually converged into their group formation while singing the words “Preserve those in thy mighty pow’r that are designed to die.” This led very naturally into “I saw Eternity” with music by Welsh composer Paul Mealor (b. 1975) and poem by Henry Vaughan. Wind chimes lent the quieter sections an aura of mystery, but in others, Will Prapestis’s soprano saxophone regrettably overbalanced the chorus often, even when placed at the opposite end of the sanctuary from the singers. With better attention to balances, though, the piece could be a draw for this ensemble. A second Welsh-born composer, Hilary Tann (b. 1947), was present for the premiere of her 7-part male choir arrangement of “Paradise” (originally SAATBB), on a text of George Herbert. The work had a beguiling complexity without becoming daunting, and the musicians were on their mettle, performing with precision and passion. The poem’s defining feature is its “successively ‘pruned’ end-rhymes” (e.g., GROW-ROW-OW and FREND-REND-END) which Tann ingeniously incorporated into her music.
We returned to Ireland for “The Rare Auld Mountain Dew,” a delightful Irish folk song speaking of a beverage much stronger than our soft drink of that name. Baritone Peter Schilling was the jaunty soloist, and the fun increased when the Fellas joined the RenMen for the second and third verses. Again, it was a natural progression from the “mountain dew” to the final number (also an Irish folk song), “The Parting Glass”, with the Fellas again adding their numbers to the ensemble. As befit the piece, the rendition was low-key but heart-warming. With ingenious programming and fruitful collaborations, the Renaissance Men are maintaining a high standard that bodes well for the remaining three programs of their season.