Renaissance Voices, the 21-voice choir directed by Harold Stover, gives only two programs a year – one around the holidays, the other in the spring. But its programs always offer a combination of rarities and familiar works – with poetry readings interspersed – in such finely polished performances that you find yourself wishing they would perform more often.

Stover named this year’s spring offering “New, Old and Unexpected,” a title that could easily be applied to most of his presentations. Actually, it was a bit of sub-rosa nostalgia: Stover borrowed the name from an influential, widely loved and stunningly eclectic daily radio show, produced and hosted by music critic Tim Page, who later won a Pulitzer for criticism, between the late 1970s and early 1990s, first at WKCR, Columbia University’s station, then at WNYC, the public radio outlet in New York.

Naturally, the “unexpected” offerings on Stover’s program held the greatest allure; who doesn’t want to be surprised? The showpiece here was Ernst Toch’s “Geographical Fugue,” a work from the 1930s that is sufficiently quirky that, shortly after Toch fled Germany for the United States in 1935, two young avant-gardists – John Cage and Henry Cowell – obtained his permission to publish an English version.

The twist in “Geographical Fugue” is that it is spoken, more or less. There actually are pitches, which rise slightly as the speed of the performance increases. But you hardly notice them, because the much more crucial element is the rhythm of the text, which includes multi-syllabic, variously accented place names, such as Trinidad, Honolulu, Mississippi, Titicaca, Canada and Málaga. Once Toch arranges the stream of names in fugal form, with each section of the choir beginning the text at a different time, the rhythms become an interlocking swirl.

Also “unexpected,” in terms of the choir’s usual repertory, were a handful of Richard Rodgers songs – “Blue Moon,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” and “If I Loved You” – in sumptuous choral arrangements. All three were performed with an exquisitely suave sound, but the standout, and one of the concert’s most memorable moments, was Jonny Priano’s richly harmonized recasting of “Blue Moon.”

The “old” offerings were Elizabethan madrigals, with bright-hued, cheerful examples by Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Greaves and John Farmer. Strictly speaking, these pieces would have been performed by smaller, more homespun groups, in their day. But if the sound Renaissance Voices produces is bigger and more carefully burnished than these composers would have been used to, that’s hardly cause for complaint – except, perhaps, for antiquarian purists.

Tomkins’ “Come shepherds, Sing With Me” and “To the Shady Woods Now Wend We,” Greaves’ “Come Away, Sweet Love”  and Farmer’s “Fair Nymphs, I Heard One Telling” are all energetic, wonderfully contrapuntal settings that flourish in the nuanced, modern readings Stover gave them.

In his introductory comments, Stover admitted that he stretched the definition of “new” to include 20th century works such as Hindemith’s “Six Chansons on Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke” (1939). Prefaced by readings of the Rilke texts, both in French by Kirk Read, and English by Cevia Roso and Niki Norman, the choir’s performance brought out both the warmth and occasionally dark turns in the music, and negotiated its chromaticism and full textures with impressive clarity.

There was one inarguably new piece, “Remember’d Songs, Most Dear,” by Matthew Emery, a Canadian composer born in 1991. But Emery’s style – in this piece, at least – is solidly conservative; if you hadn’t noticed the date of his birth, you could have mistaken it for a 19th century work, and the choir sang it in that spirit. It was preceded by an amusing Ogden Nash poem, “Pretty Halcyon Days,” in a spirited reading by Bernie Horowitz.

As an encore, Stover led the choir in a beautifully textured rendering of Leonard Marshall’s “Sweet Spring Is Returning,” an appealing rarity that he discovered in “The Harp of Praise,” a choral collection published in Boston in 1875.

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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