In December, 2012, a new musical ensemble tested the very crowded waters of the Triangle classical music scene and were met with critical acclaim and anticipation of more to come. It has taken ten months, but the chamber choir Voices of a New Renaissance (VOANR) has reemerged to begin its first complete season of concerts. As befits most endeavors in this area, it is always best to spread out your message to the several cities that encompass our artistically rich area and VOANR has chosen Chapel Hill and Raleigh as their venues. This first concert took place at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill.

Mission statements seem to be the vogue for all types of organizations large and small, and VOANR’s succinctly sums up its purpose: “to engage and inspire Triangle audiences through the power of exceptional choral music and professional vocal artistry.” The leader and founder of VOANR is Nathan Leaf, Director of Choral Activities at NC State University and an acknowledged scholar of early music practice and performance. He has assembled a distinguished group of five female and five male singers who perform the full spectrum of choral music, although there is an emphasis on the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The program was a perfect example of that delightful mix.

The title and theme of this concert was “Sacred and Profane: Choral Treasures of the Divine and Worldly.” The word “profane,” in this context, does not have quite the connotation of today’s usage and simply means secular. The selections were heavily weighted towards English composers, with the exception of a few works by the masters Monteverdi and Palestrina. The first section was exclusively sacred and began with four selections from Funeral Sentences by Thomas Morley (c.1558-1602). Part of the Book of Common Prayer burial services, these are expectedly somber and reflective works. “Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of our Hearts,” “I Am the Resurrection and the Life,” “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth,” and “I Heard a Voice from Heav’n” are meant to comfort those at the precipice. The performance was a bit tentative with regard to intonation, but the group eventually found its footing both with each other and the venue. The biggest problem seemed to be the tuning of the suspensions at the final cadences as well as agreeing on a uniform ritard.

We next met the eleventh and only non-singing member of the group: Craig Wiggins, lute and theorbo player. He accompanied the group on theorbo in Thomas Weelkes’ “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Although this is a complex instrument that is nearly as tall as the player with an astounding number of strings, it was nearly inaudible among ten singers.

The remainder of the sacred section contained two selections each by the acknowledged masters of the high Renaissance and early Baroque, Palestrina and Monteverdi. It is somewhat counter-intuitive, but quite often within a program the performers often excel with the most difficult pieces. This was the case here. The choir seemed to blossom with confidence, rhythmic vitality, and warmth of sound throughout these works. Heads were, for the most part, out of the music, and they were watching the conductor as well as listening, adapting, and blending with their fellow singers.

The second section was a mixture of the sacred and profane with four of the eight parts of Benjamin Britten’s Sacred and Profane. First performed in 1975, this SSATB work is almost a compendium of modern vocal techniques and modern harmonies. VOANR made a seamless transformation to this contemporary work, clearly demonstrating the members’ vocal chops and dismissing any concern that this group may be a musical “one trick pony.”

The final section was all profane and earthly pleasures. Before the music began, maestro Leaf attempted to distinguish – in somewhat sanitized fashion – the difference of the common meaning of “to die” with what the French call La petite mort. This is quite critical in understanding the lyrics of many of the songs by John Dowland and others of the great Elizabethan period of the English Renaissance. During this portion of the concert we got to hear several solos and duets, accompanied by Wiggins on an 8-course renaissance lute. These songs, by Dowland, Morley, and Thomas Campion, are jewels of English music; some scholars suggest that any significant musical contributions from the British ceased until Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Britten.

A few of the singers were a bit heavy handed for these delicate works, as if now that they had a solo they’d better sing like they were belting out Wagner. But when it works, like Kathryn Mueller’s take on Dowland’s “What If I Never Speed,” it was pure magic. Although it made a nice photo op, Wiggins’ beautiful lute part in “Fine Knack for Ladies” was totally lost in the sea of the full ten-voice ensemble as the evening ended.

Voices of a New Renaissance is a welcome addition to our music scene. This is a group of highly trained singers with a wide range of stylistic and emotional talents. I urge the Artistic Director to make a better use of instrumental accompaniment in the future, possibly a consort of players.