Sue T. Klausmeyer led Cantari, the elite ensemble of Voices, in a “Tribute to Women – Madonna, Lover, Saint.” Cleverly, the program consisted of precisely that: six Marian antiphons from the renaissance, three English madrigals. and two selections from Henry Purcell’s abundant compositions for St. Cecilia’s Day, which happens to be just two weeks away (November 22).

In Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill, these exceptional musicians made the lovely sanctuary reverberate like a great cathedral. Opening with the exquisite “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena” by Josquin Desprez, the imitative lines merged in a perfect congealing of harmony. Taken at a leisurely tempo, the homophonic passages in the middle and at the end were especially warm and rich. And the unison Amen in octaves was just right – enough to send chills up one’s spine.

Don Carlo Gesualdo was one of the most unique composers of the renaissance and perhaps of all time. He was independently wealthy and beholden to no duke or bishop for support. Therefore what he wrote was for his own satisfaction, and if he chose to create outside of established rules he did so. His “Ave Maria Dulcissima,” beautifully sung by the chorus, was full of unexpected chromatic lines and delicious harmonic surprises.

Giovani Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Alma Redemptoris Mater” gave credence to the title, The Prince of Music, which is often applied to him. And Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Ave Regina Coelorum a 8” for double chorus laid out the genius of Spain’s greatest renaissance composer.

Next on the program was a setting of “Regina Coeli” by the German composer Gregor Aichinger. It was somewhat more lively and featured soloists Jane Thurston, Brooke Czuka, Cathy Tymann, Miranda Steed, David Ray, and Adam Dengler. Their voices blended nicely, providing a delightful change in texture in contrast to the full choir.

The set of Marian antiphons concluded with a double choir setting of “Salve Regina” by the low-country composer Orlando di Lasso. These motets were well chosen to represent a cross section of the renaissance riches from early to late and across the European continent. They provided music to feed the soul and are as fresh today as they were three or four hundred years ago when they were written. Cantari, under Klausmeyer’s sensitive guidance, did an exceptional job.

Four selections by the best of the English madrigalists provided a perspective on women as the renaissance lover. “For Phyllis I saw,” by John Farmer, was brisk and delightful with syncopated and hemiola (three beats of equal value in the time normally occupied by two beats) based rhythms and renaissance imitative weaving of melodic lines.

William Byrd’s “Though Amaryllis Dance” continued in this vein with charming solo work by Cristin Grossi. Her rich, warm soprano added a wonderful personal touch to the song. “I Love, alas, I Love Thee,” a song about Flora by Thomas Morley, and the affectionate “Adieu Sweet Amaryllis” by John Wilbye rounded out the madrigal portion of the concert. It was quite obvious that Cantari thoroughly relished singing these selections and their enthusiasm was infectious.

The concluding portion of the concert called upon Henry Purcell and his glorious tributes to St. Cecilia, the patron of music and musicians. First was “Soul of the World” from Hail, Bright Cecilia, An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1692). Organist Laura Buff, harpsichordist Matthew Paris, and cellist Brent Wissick provided the continuo for this glorious chorus.

Next we heard Welcome to all the pleasures, An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1683). For this work, the chorus employed several soloists from Cantari’s talented membership and members of the UNC Baroque Ensemble directed by Wissick: Robert Garbarz and Molly Barnes, violins, Mason Allen, viola, Brent Wissick, cello, and Matthew Paris, harpsichord. This ensemble played well an opening symphony and spirited ritornelli at the conclusion of most of the movements.

Verse 1 was opened by a trio – Aaron Thacker, David Ray, and Adam Dengler – leading to the full ensemble’s rendition of the expansive anthem “Hail, Hail Great Assembly.” Verse 2, “Here the Dieties approve,” a melodic solo for countertenor, was sung by Thacker superbly. Verse 3 was sung by the trio of Jane Thurston, Andrea Shoffstall, and Dale Bailey. Verse 4 began with Dengler’s baritone solo, then the trio of Thacker, Bailey and Dengler alternated with full chorus in “Then lift up your voices.” Verse 5, “Beauty thou scene of Love,” was a lilting solo enriched by the soaring voice of Ray. The final verse, “In a Concert of Voices,” was begun by the tenor section with the full chorus joining in to bring the Ode to a quiet but inspiring conclusion.

This was the kind of concert that left you inspired and fully satisfied. Thanks to Klausmeyer and all the fine singers that make up Cantari!