Renaissance Music

  • Exploring Male Voices With RenMen


    Renmen Laments
    Renaissance Men/Eric Christopher Perry
    Navona Records 6210
    Total Time:  73:00
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Formed in 2014, the Boston-based choral group Renaissance Men has created an unique opportunity for exploring choral repertoire written for male voices.  In their debut album, they have chosen a number of interesting pieces from Thomas Tallis to Daniel Gawthrop.  The five works here all focus on exploring religious contemplation and reflection.

    The first part of the program features three shorter works.  An arrangement of O Vos Omnes composed by the cellist Pablo Casals and originally for SATB chorus.  The arrangement here by Clifford G. Richter gives us a darker, and perhaps mellower, exploration of the work which has an ancient feel.  Massachussets composer Patricia Van Ness is known for the way she explores motivic development and long lines.  This is on display in her setting of Psalm 3 which has moments of open modal harmony that move to rather beautiful expanded sonorities.  It provides a great contrast to the rich writing of Milhaud’s Psalm 121 setting (1922).  The work is a truly magnificent exploration of his bitonal harmony with bits of modal melodies intended to evoke Jewish music.  Truly one of the great examples of 20th-Century choral writing.  A further connection here is that the piece was originally written and premiered by The Harvard Glee Club.  It is a gorgeous performance.

    The second half of the album explores Biblical prophets.  An arrangement of Tallis’ The Lamentations of Jeremiah for men is the first of two works focusing on these ancient texts.  The 16th Century work uses the opening five verses of Lamentations.  Blends of solo and full choral expression in this version helps add an extra layer of contrast bolstered by Tallis’ own exploration of polyphony and larger homophonic sections.  The interpretation here thus creates a unique addition to the performances available.

    The closing work is by the masterful American choral composer Daniel Gawthrop.  His The Promises of Isaiah the Prophet was written for and premiered by RenMen in 2016.  The work serves as a modern extension of the Tallis but now moving us toward a more uplifting and hopeful vision.  The quality of the work explores a similar style as well with flirtations of spiritual-like qualities.  It is an excellent example of accessible modern choral writing for which the composer is well known.

    Navona’s recording captures the choir quite well in the Westminster Presbyterian Church location in Buffalo.  The sound is quite pure without being overambient and this lends itself well to the warm vocal quality of the group itself.  This is an excellent memento that the group can have for those attending their many concerts here in New England and an opportunity for those outside the region to experience their programs and sound which are the East Coast answer to Chanticleer.



  • Exploring the Rosales Organ At the Disney Concert Hall


    Private Organ Recital in Walt Disney Concert Hall
    Jung-A Lee, organ
    Yarlung Records 77215
    Total Time:  76:14
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    The organ constructed for the Walt Disney Concert Hall has had its critics from its initial conception and installation.  Most of the controversy stems from the “French fry” look and design of how the pipes tie in to the main console of the instrument.  Designed by Manuel Rosales, the completed instrument is certainly one of the most massive of its type with 6,134 pipes with lengths from a few inches to 32 feet!  The overall design, voicing and tuning was a joint effort with the Glatter-Gotz Orgelbau from Owingen, Germany, and Rosales’ Los Angeles company.  One gets a sense of the magnitude of the project from the accompanying booklet for this new release featuring Jung-A Lee.

    St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Newport Beach must count themselves quite lucky to have Jung-A Lee as their regular organist.  She serves their as organist while also performing around the globe.  Her program here is a carefully chosen collection of pieces from throughout time including two new works.  The album itself was conceived as a special gift to Simon Woods, the new CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic which celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year.  The recording was made this past June.

    The opening piece, Woods and Brooks is a new composition by Adam Knight Gilbert (b. 1961) commissioned to welcome the Wood family.  The melodic ideas are created by attaching solfeggio syllables to Wood, his wife and their two children.  He also uses this technique for each letter in the name of the orchestra weaving them together with nods to the Renaissance.  A bird call can also be heard which adds to the flair of the work with its more traditional general sound along with jingling bells.  Later, one of Lee’s own compositions, Fantasia on “Blessed Assurance” honors the memory of her late husband and follows a performance of Bach’s Prelude in b, BWV 544 (ca. 1727-1731).  It is a rather beautiful exploration of the melody with some wonderful arpeggio lines that show off the shifting colors of the instrument.

    Bach is but one of the Baroque composer’s whose music appears on the album.  Lee uses Francois Couperin’s Elevation: Tierce en taille to explore the flexibility of these massive instrument making adjustments that make it seem as if we are hearing an historic period instrument.  Another classic choice is the Ciacona in c of Buxtehude.  Giving us a more specific flair for late Renaissance organ music is Lee’s choice of the set of variations on the hymn tune Mein junges Leben hat ein End by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621).  A modern Dutch organ piece, Miroir (1989) by Ad Wammes gives us a sense of minimalist-like style with intriguing harmonic shifts revealing further colorful aspects of the instrument.

    Swiss composer Guy Bovet’s (b. 1942) Hamburger Totentanz is almost like a throwback to classic theater organ music of the early 20th Century with its engaging insistent rhythm and quotations of Offenbach, Beethoven, and Wagner.  It makes for a delightful restrained piece before we get the organ showpiece by Louis Vierne (1870-1937), Carrillon de Westminster.  To round off the exploration of this European region, Lee includes “Les Anges” from Messiaen’s organ cycle La Nativite du Seigneur.

    Two American works fill out the program.  John Weaver’s Toccata in G (1968) is a popular work amongst organists and it is a perfection all-out demonstration vehicle for the organ and Ms. Lee’s talents used to transition us from the Wammes to the Sweelinck in the sequence of selections.  The program concludes with one of the great organ works by American composer Dudley Buck (1839-1909) published 100 years before the Weaver toccata.  Buck’s Concert Variations on the “Star Spangled Banner” is a perfect celebratory piece to this delightful program and it is great to have this performance in the catalog.

    Throughout, Lee’s registrations reveal the depth and breadth of Rosales’ instrument and they often make one forget that this is not a recital from throughout different organs but one on a truly singular instrument.  Recording an organ of any kind is an often daunting task, but the engineers here have really managed to give listeners a chance to hear this grand instrument and all that it can do in this space.  It is as close as one might get to being there and may best be enjoyed with your surround speaker system.  It somehow manages to capture some of the lowest ends of the instrument.  Lee’s performance are quite fine throughout, often carefully realized, but with a sense of great musicality that even in the showpieces lets the music shine even when her own virtuosity is the star.  Those who wish to explore grand organ music with this varied program will certainly have much to revel in here and should encourage anyone headed to Los Angeles to double check whenever the organ may be featured in recitals or concerts.  Even better is that the varied program itself is a refreshing change of pace.