Great Composers of the Renaissance

Voices of Ascension on Thursday, May 18.

Good choral blend is difficult to describe and even more difficult to develop, but the Voices of Ascension have it. Under the direction of Dennis Keene, each talented singer adopts the same warm, full tone. Singling out an individual voice would be impossible; the choir has but a single voice. For a few moments, the singers are one instrument.

That blend might be particularly desirable in Renaissance music, which Voices of Ascension performed Thursday to close the 2005–06 season. Rich, homophonic chord progressions make up much of the era’s repertory, and that texture immediately exposes poorly integrated voices. In the compositions of Hildegard von Bingen, a dozen or so voices carry a single unmetered melodic line for the entire piece. (Maestro Keene is cheating here: The eleventh-century nun could hardly be considered a Renaissance composer, and indeed, her monophonic chants aren’t typical of the period.) Sung by an ordinary choir, such simple structure could quickly become dull, but the Voices of Ascension made each note vibrant.

Voices of Ascension excelled at creating a rich, meditative sound, but they shifted mood admirably when beseeching texts gave way to joyous alleluias. My favorite aspect of Renaissance music is polyphony, and here, too, the musicianship was extraordinary. Each vocal line was clean and distinct, rising in prominence where appropriate and then weaving itself seamlessly back into the musical fabric.

To my ears, the concert had only one weakness. Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere features a quartet with a soaring soprano line — unbelievably gorgeous and utterly exposed. The Voices’ soloist nailed the line in both the best sense and the worst. She was pitch perfect in the stratosphere but far too tense, hitting the high note that should have floated. In the interest of fairness, I feel bound to mention that I may be in the minority on this point — the woman received enthusiastic applause for her execution of the fiendishly difficult line — but the Miserere disappointed me. It’s one of my favorite works of the Renaissance, but the Voices of Ascension rendition fell short of the ethereal heights that Allegri’s composition can achieve.

Fortunately the concert concluded with two works by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, truly the pinnacle of Renaissance music. Intricate polyphony resolved into sumptuous chords with grace and beauty. The Palestrina selections were all too brief — just “Assumpta est Maria” and “Tu es Petrus” instead of one the masses — but when the choir sang the line about Peter receiving the keys to heaven, one didn’t to have to be too fanciful to imagine that the audience had received them, too.