In June of 2014, Renaissance Men gave our first set of concerts in Beacon Hill’s Church of the Advent and Brookline’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The haphazardly assembled concert program featured a bevy of polyphonic motets by Slovenian Renaissance composer Jacob Handl, an assortment of modern sacred works (including one by a certain Daniel E. Gawthrop), and, as its centerpiece, the intimidatingly iconic Thomas Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah. Performed with only five voices at the time, and with a certain brash impetuosity typical of newly formed ensembles, we left the piece grateful for the lessons it taught us, though haunted by a sense of unfinished business. Shortly thereafter, we sought a chance to deepen our experience with the work, to perhaps better serve its myriad layers of musical intricacy and dramatic expressivity. First, however, came bluegrass, the Beatles, and, of course, Hungarian drinking songs. English part songs, American spirituals, German Romantic männerchor, Estonian folk tunes, not to mention some hair-raising world premieres — anything and everything that whet our musical appetites and further demonstrated the versatility implied in our moniker. Eventually we came full circle, doubled in numbers and ready to give the Tallis another go, albeit in hopefully more cohesively programmed musical surroundings than was previously the case!
To set a suitably introspective tonal palette at the program’s outset, a brief trio of somber works comprises a choral prelude. Pablo Casals’ O Vos Omnes, a favorite of mixed and men’s ensembles alike, luxuriates in a homophonic richness of color unsurprising from a composer also known as one of the greatest cellists of all time. Although originally scored for SATB voices, the men’s arrangement adds a further degree of darkness, favoring the tints of the cellos and basses rather than those of violins. Coincidentally, Patricia Van Ness, composer of Psalm 3, is also a string player. A New England resident and Staff Composer for First Church in Cambridge, Van Ness’s music has been performed by such illustrious ensembles as the King’s Singers and Chanticleer. She constantly draws inspiration from the flowing, diaphanous lines of string ensemble repertoire, and the resulting unconventional manner in which vocal lines trade off words and musical motifs has become a recognizable hallmark of Van Ness’s compositional style. For those accustomed to Sir Hubert Parry’s bombastically exuberant setting of the I Was Glad text, replete with brass fanfare and altitudinous treble outbursts, Darius Milhaud’s Psaume 121 will come as a surprise. A whirlwind of expressive devices are employed, from the murky, close harmonies of the low bass opening to the jubilant arpeggios scaled by the high tenors as they sing of “the celebration that is Israel.” The concluding measures of the piece, wherein the speaker resolves to seek happiness in God, feature a slowly expanding bitonality, with F and G major lushly juxtaposed before resolving to a rapt F major, the ethereal ascent of the tenors tellingly contrasted with a sonorous final basso descent.
There is still some mystery regarding the exact composition date of Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah, though scholars argue that its technical sophistication is unlikely to predate Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries, placing its genesis plausibly in the mid to late 1560s. Working with the Old Testament’s Book of Lamentations, Tallis chose to only set the first five verses of the book, though he adds opening incipits for each movement and includes the introductory Hebraic letters for each verse. Tallis utilizes every compositional device in his arsenal throughout the work, seamlessly weaving motivic passages between each of the five voice parts, while contrasting polyphony and homophony to staggering emotional effect. In splitting these five parts amongst ten voices, it is RenMen’s goal to further augment the built-in extremity of Tallis’s contrasts. By constantly shifting between different groupings of soloist voices, it is our hope that this variety of vocal colors suggests the wailing of a disconsolate populace, whereas the strength of our tutti forces reinforces the communal tragedy that has befallen the Babylonians as they mourn the destruction of Jerusalem. Amidst the seemingly impenetrable darkness of the overall tone, however, Tallis allows a final appeal for fallen man to “return to God,” to surface as a single shaft of light. A glimmer of hope emerges at the tenors navigate a final sequence of vocal embroidery, culminating at last on a Picardy third as poignant as it is graceful.
As briefly mentioned earlier, our first concert series also introduced RenMen as a whole to the music of Daniel E. Gawthrop. A living treasure of American sacred music, Gawthrop’s sterling credentials can be found in his biography below. Beyond his prestige, his work touched each of us deeply — it was a powerful musical alchemy discovered within our very first reading of his Into the Woods. Shortly thereafter, he indulged the request of a still unseasoned General Manager by arranging his well-beloved mixed choir anthem Close Now Thine Eyes for men’s voices. Since that time, he has become both a dear friend and mentor to our group, and it is with great pride that we present his The Promises of Isaiah the Prophet, written as a musical and textual response to the Tallis. Picking up in the same tonality as the Tallis ends, Gawthrop’s opulent harmonic landscape contrasts vividly with the stark austerity of the Tallis. Similarly, Isaiah’s rhapsodic text acts as a welcome foil to the bereaved utterances of his fellow prophet Jeremiah. As Dan prefers to allow his music to speak for itself, we now invite you to simply revel in its beauties. And we hope that well after the echo of the work’s final high C fades, a memory remains of Gawthop and Isaiah’s timelessly uplifting message of peace and everlasting joy.
— Anthony Burkes Garza
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