Renaissance Faire

February 12, 2008

In an increasingly crowded field of Bay Area choral ensembles, certain groups have devised creative methods of garnering attention. The three-year-old San Francisco Renaissance Voices, still a new kid on the block, takes the novel step of re-creating historical performance environments for its concerts.
The idea is to “re-create and capture the vitality and meaning that this music brought to everyday life in the Renaissance.” In the case of its most recent set, a concert for the feast of St. Valentine, the old French “court of love” provided the contextual backdrop, complete with Renaissance costumes, a lutenist, and a Madame Judge (local actress Gabrielle Motarjemi) to oversee the proceedings.

Historical performance practice has its dangers. Taken to the level of camp, as it did here at times, the effect seemed more like a Renaissance Faire gone awry than a meaningful re-creation. Yet the chansons from this particular court of love provided most of the highlights in a decidedly uneven program Sunday at San Francisco’s Noe Valley Ministry, part of the Noe Valley Chamber Music series, their amusing texts and effervescent character capturing love’s more lighthearted side.
Court in Session
The court of love, occupying the program’s second half, intermingled a mélange of lute solos and short solo vocals with several ensemble works. Soprano Alice N. Ko and bass Jess G. Perry began the proceedings with Pierre Guêdron’s Berger, que penses vous faire? (Shepherd, what do you think you’re doing?), a back-and-forth parry between a would-be Romeo and his reluctant Juliet.

Ko sang with a sweet and delicate quality, while Parry’s rich sound and convincing acting helped sell the piece. Parry was also well-matched with soprano Irene Gallardo and tenor Hyung Gyu Park in François de Chancy’s Faut-il mourir sans esperance (Must I die without hope), the trio bringing a light, effortless quality to this plaintive lament on a shepherd’s unfaithfulness. Sean Smith’s generally solid lute interludes provided a pleasing contrast to the vocal works.

A couple of early music standards showcased SFRV’s ensemble abilities. In Pierre Passereau’s famous Il est bel et bon (He is handsome and good), a sprightly patter song featuring the onomatopoetic imitation of clucking hens, the choir boasted a robust sound and imbued the lines with nice shape.

Another renowned 16th-century chanson, Clement Janequin’s La Guerre (The battle), celebrates the French victory over the Swiss army in the 1515 Battle of Marignano. The ensemble ably accentuated the piece’s whirring and sputtering battle sounds, delivering a successful performance despite some blending problems and imprecise entrances.
Sacred Sufferings
Less convincing was the program’s first half, devoted primarily to the Missa super Mon coeur se recommande à vous, attributed to Orlando di Lasso but probably composed by his student Johannes Eccard. Although based on a love chanson, the piece’s elevated style was in marked contrast to the more festive love songs elsewhere on the program. (Thankfully, SFRV eschewed the Renaissance costumes for this one.)

SFRV’s gossamer sound, effective in the realm of secular chanson, was less suited to this more high-minded Mass. Music Director Todd Jolly might have considered pitching the piece downward to avoid the squeaky sonority that often intruded. Spotty intonation and a generally thin sound characterized the Kyrie, though the Gloria was more effective overall, particularly in homophonic passages with all voices singing the same text together. The interweaving contrapuntal lines were more problematic, often lacking a sense of direction.

The Credo had some fine moments. Places that called for more visceral text expression, such as "descendit de coelis" (descended from heaven) and "crucifixus etiam pro nobis" (crucified also for us), were effectively handled. Following this was the most quickly paced Sanctus I’ve heard in a long time, a jarring contrast to the more reverent sensibility that usually accompanies this solemn moment. Insecure entrances and moments of faulty intonation disrupted the sound here and in the closing Agnus Dei, which also moved at a startlingly fast clip.

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.