In building his program for the Renaissance Voices’ spring concert, Harold Stover, the choir’s director, dipped into his conducting bucket list to find works (and in a couple of cases, composers) he had not yet conducted in concert, but hoped to get to. Noticing that composers whose name begins with “M” were disproportionately represented, he decided to focus on that one letter, and chose four composers from the list to perform Saturday evening at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke’s, under the title “M is for …”

That the program was performed in May brought another M into the fold, a point that became clear in Stover’s encore, a robust performance of Thomas Morley’s “Now is the Month of Maying” – which, as a madrigal, had three M connections in one.

If that seems a mildly eccentric programming approach, more conventional thematic strands were apparent as well. Most works were either about, or drew on, the imagery of springtime, nature, love (requited and otherwise, human and divine) or all three. Poetry readings, interspersed between groups of songs, meditated further on those subjects.

Claudio Monteverdi and Felix Mendelssohn were the program’s anchors, with works on each half. For listeners who like to follow a single composer’s development, even over a short period, the Monteverdi selections were especially fascinating.

Stover chose three pieces from the composer’s “Third Book of Madrigals” (1592) and two from the “Fourth Book of Madrigals” (1603), and in that decade, Monteverdi’s language expanded from straightforwardly sweet harmonies and gentle chordal textures to more daring, painterly harmonic choices and textures in which the individual vocal strands moved more independently within the composite sound.

You could argue that a chamber choir, even one as compact as Renaissance Voices (with six sopranos, five altos, three tenors and five basses) is larger than ideal for these pieces, which were probably performed with one or two voices to a part in Monteverdi’s day, and on recording now. “La giovanetta pianta” (“The Sapling”) and “Ch’io non t’ami, cor mio” (“That I Might Not Love You, My Dear”), from the “Third Book,” sounded soft-edged here, and though they are love songs, you want them to have a slightly greater bite.

Still, there was something seductive about the homogenous, carefully balanced sound that Stover drew from his singers. And possibly because of the greater independence of vocal lines in the “Fourth Book,” those selections – “Piagn’e sospira” (“She Wept and Sighed”) and “Quel augellin che canta” (“The Little Bird That Sings”) – sounded more sharply etched, and more passionate.

Mendelssohn’s “Four Songs” (Op. 100) and “Der Wandernde Musikant” (“The Wandering Musician,” Op. 88) are more naturally suited to this choir’s size, and were performed with the richness and clarity they demand. So were Edward McDowell’s charming “Two Northern Songs” (Op. 43), a pair of graceful, easygoing rarities by an American composer who flourished in the last half of the 19th century, and is best known today for his piano music.

For energy and color, the program’s highlight was its only work by a living composer, Nico Muhly’s “A New Song.” With a text drawn from several Psalms, it catalogs a handful of distinctly musical ways to praise God (that is, with the harp, psaltery, an unspecified 10-stringed instrument, and voice) in the energetic, joyful style that is one of Muhly’s hallmarks.

Its demands included challenging melodic leaps, surprising harmonic changes and fluid dynamics that underscored the expressivity of the text. Stover and his singers gave the piece a bright-hued, nuanced reading that left a listener hoping they might explore Muhly’s catalog of choral settings further.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn


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