The Renaissance Voices Christmas concert has become something of a tradition in Portland. The a cappella ensemble, under the direction of Harold Stover, offers a carefully chosen program of ancient and modern music, interspersed with readings of the season, that provides an oasis in a desert of consumerism.

Its appeal was evidenced by the large audience at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke on Saturday, in spite of dire warnings of an impending ice storm.

Those who braved the hype were treated to a finely tuned concert that revealed the best of the Christmas spirit in music, from Renaissance Italy to modern America, without a red-nosed reindeer in sight.

The most thought-provoking work of the evening was Charles Ives’ powerful and gritty setting of the 67th Psalm, which seems to take its inspiration from the last line: “And all the ends of the earth shall fear Him.” It also demonstrated the ability of the singers to hold dissonant intervals with no fixed reference point but an “A” from a pitch pipe.

In the same school, but a century earlier, were two equally wonderful hymns by Supply Belcher (1751-1836) from “The Harmony of Maine.” Full of bold, untutored harmony and counterpoint, they were equally full of life. Ives must have admired them.

Also intriguing was “Into the winter’s glimm’ring light,” by Maine composer Patricia van Ness (b. 1951). The music, which begins pianissimo and remains delicate throughout, envisions light emanating from a distant source, represented by the basses, and coalescing magically in “the little child.”

American composer George Whitfield Chadwick (1854-1931) was represented by a deceptively simple setting of “The Lamb,” for female voices. With all of the genius in American Christmas music, the wonder is that we don’t hear more of it.

Stover’s selection of Renaissance works during the first half of the program showed that they were equally varied. A carol-like “Resonet in laudibus” by Jacob Handl (1550-1591) was followed by a “Magnificat tertii toni” of Francesco Soriano (1549-1621), which alternated chant-like passages with more polyphonic singing. Two Ave Marias, by Jacques Arcadelt (c.1507-1568) and Tomas Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611) were strikingly different in style, although sung to exactly the same words.

A difficult but perfectly articulated madrigal-like setting of “Noe, noe, psallite” by Gregor Aichinger (1565-1628) and a “Regem natum” by Handl completed the first half of the program.

The encore was a fine arrangement of “Wassail All Over the Town.”

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

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