The Renaissance Voices Spring concert Saturday night at Immanuel Baptist Church somehow reminded me of Wordsworth’s lines about the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in those days to be alive but to be young was very heaven…”

The program, cleverly put together by director Harold Stover, included works from the Renaissance, the a capella group’s specialty, songs by Schumann to celebrate his 200th birthday, a wonderful set of six by Paul Hindemith and sophisticated versions of old favorites from “The Great American Songbook.”

In their freshness and feeling for the coming of Spring, the season of love, the madrigals by British composer Thomas Weelkes (1575-1632), took first place, perhaps because they were written in a time when virtually everyone was young — the life expectancy being about 35 years. (Weelkes, who died at age 57, was an exception.)

All of the Weelkes songs are celebrations of love and joy, some of them a little risque, combining the utmost in elaborate counterpoint with liveliness and clarity.

All were perfectly rendered by the 20-voice choir, with every voice at the proper level. The bass section seemed to have been stronger than usual.

Schumann exhibited the usual Romantic angst in some of the five songs spanning the period of his short career, but he is also capable of surprises, such as “Vom Schlaraffenland,” his version of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and the descriptive “Der Schmidt. He also tried his hand, like every other composer, at setting “Heidenroslein.”

The original folk song is still the best.

Members of the choir read their own translations of the French and German song lyrics before singing them. These versions seemed better and more faithful to the originals than the sometimes incomprehensible ones designed to be sung.

This was especially true of the French poems written by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and set to music by Paul Hindemith. French demands clarity and served as a corrective to Rilke’s typical oversubtlety.

The Hindemith settings of six Rilke “nature poems” including, of course, one on Spring, are a revelation, descriptive without being obvious and written with marvelous and unusual counterpoint. “The Doe” captures the spirit of the animal, alert yet calm and graceful, while “Since All is Passing” is fast and breathtakingly short.

In comparison to the Weelkes madrigals, the arrangements by Kirby Shaw of songs by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Richard Rogers, seem somehow world-weary, which doesn’t prevent their being refreshingly novel and familiar at the same time.

In that spirit, the “Nightclub” soliloquy by Billy Collins, read by Larry Jackson, was just right.

The encore was “I’ll be seeing you…” The concert will be repeated June 6 on Peaks Island, For information go to www.renaissancevoices.org.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:


WHAT: Renaissance Voices

WHERE: Immanuel Baptist Church, Portland

WHEN: May 8

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