Maybe it was due to its being the night before Mother’s Day, but there was a larger than ordinary audience Saturday at the Renaissance Voices’ spring concert, “Vive La France,” a bouquet of French love songs from the Renaissance to the 20th century presented at the Williston-Immanuel United Church in Portland.
The a cappella chorus and conductor Harold Stover obviously love this music, and it sounded as fresh and full of gaiety as the day it was written — sometime more than 500 years ago.
Romantic sentiments haven’t changed much in that time, as Stover emphasized with his pairing of “Ce beau printemps,” by Mark Sirettt (b. 1952) with Clement Janequin’s (1485-1558) “Toutes les nuits,” deeply felt, beautiful and uncannily similar. Both are polyphonic and both have nodes in which the interweaving of the voices creates strange harmonies.
Love songs were interspersed with humorous readings about love (Ronsard), food and wine (Julia Child) and the French language (David Sedaris).
The prelude and encore were relatively modern, including a delightful “Le Mai,” by Francois-Auguste Gavaert (1828-1908), and Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris.”
The greater part of the program was devoted to Renaissance music, all of it beautifully sung and as contemporary as today’s newspaper. One exception was “La vache egaree,” by Gevaert, which seems to compare a doomed love to a stray cow. The song, however, was sad, and sung with just the right feeling by the chorus, with a solo by soprano Rhee Michelle in the final verses.
Of particular interest was Janequin’s “Le chant des oiseaux,” which ends each of four stanzas with bird songs composed of nonsense syllables. The final one is the ubiquitous cuckoo, presaging Beethoven, Mahler and Messiaen all the way from the Renaissance.
Many of the songs in the first half were admonitions not to take life too seriously, as in “Nous sommes de l’ordre de Saint-Babouyn,” by Loyset Compere (c.1445-1518), whose members sleep until noon, drink wine at matins, and all during the day dine on capons, beef and mutton and end with a snack of pickled herring and a pigeon pie — “and this is what we ask of life.”
The program ended with three songs by Claude Debussy. The first two were surprisingly straight and melodic, with only a few of Debussy’s signature touches, and a charming solo part sung by Sarah Potter. The final “Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain,” for quintet, was pure Debussy, with its violent and colorful clashes between summer and winter.
The program will be performed again at 6:30 p.m. on June 2 in the Fifth Maine Museum on Peaks Island.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: