Renaissance Men base diverse concert on turbulent year 1965
Boston is so richly stocked with choruses and vocal ensembles that it can be a mild shock to realize gaps exist in this crowded part of its artistic environs. But a couple of years ago, six guys, all freelance singers, found themselves running into each other at gigs and bemoaning the dearth of opportunities to sing in a male vocal group. Not a men’s chorus, of which Boston has several — including Boston Saengerfest, Apollo Club of Boston, and the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus — but a small ensemble to sing what Eric Christopher Perry calls “vocal chamber music” for men’s voices.
Naturally, they decided to do something about it. So was born Renaissance Men, a now nine-member ensemble whose identity embraces the dual connotations of its name. Much of its repertoire lies in early music; the ensemble’s first concert, in June of 2014, was devoted largely to works by the 16th-century Slovenian composer Jacob Handl.
But as Anthony Burkes Garza, Renaissance Men’s general director, pointed out during a recent interview, the phrase also indicates “someone who’s accomplished in a wide array of mediums. And we have such a diverse range of musical interests.” Some members sing in bands, another was brought up singing country music, still others have done barbershop. So for its second performance in November of the same year, the ensemble programmed a concert of hymn tunes, spirituals, and bluegrass, with some members playing banjo, guitar, and double bass in addition to singing.
“There is no piece of music, no genre, no medium that we will not explore,” said Perry, the group’s artistic director. “I think that we’re all eager to learn a lot of different things. That’s really important for us, because this is still very much a project for own interest: We’re doing it for the love of really great music. The fact that we can perform with boundaries is really freeing.”
This weekend’s concerts represent Renaissance Men’s most ambitious program to date. “RenMen 1965” explores an eclectic cross-section of music from the midpoint of a tumultuous decade, as an echoing of the resemblances between that time and our own.
It may also be the only classical program to have been inspired by a radio talk show. Perry teaches at Phillips Academy in Andover, and during his frequent hours on the road he found himself listening to WGBH’s daytime program “Boston Public Radio,” whose hosts, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, always seemed to be talking about the 1960s, he said.
“I got to thinking how eerily similar things are now to what they were back then,” Perry recalled, referring to a fragmented social fabric and the strife around an emerging civil-rights movement. “Wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to program [a concert] that makes you think about these issues, using the music of that time?”
The “classical” works written that year include an almost completely unknown set of drinking songs by the German composer Franz Biebl, a composer familiar to choral singers from a near-ubiquitous “Ave Maria” setting. Also on the bill are Lennox Berkeley’s “Three Songs for Four Men’s Voices” and folk-song settings by the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The second half is a suite of ’60s pop songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and others.
At the concert’s center is the premiere of “Five Clippings in 1965,” by the 17-year-old composer Charles Stacy III. Stacy is a voice student of Perry’s at Phillips, and wrote an hourlong song cycle for him on poems from A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad.” When Stacy agreed to write for Renaissance Men, Perry told him to pick five texts published in the Boston Globe during 1965.
Among Stacy’s choices were stories related to the assassination of Malcolm X and the Vietnam War. Fragments of reporting on those events — “Malcolm X went straight back and the sound of his head slamming onto the wooden floor was mixed with the screams of the crowd” — are set to what Garza calls “this really dramatically intense” music.
The “RenMen” have much else on the horizon, including their first recording, of works by American choral composer Daniel Gawthrop. While its members have enough other projects that conceiving of the group as a full-time entity is difficult, it is a future that they are eager and ambitious enough to try to make happen.
“If someone were to tell me, ‘If you want to turn this into a full time gig, this is what you do,’ it’d be hard to turn that down,” said Perry. “These guys are great and the experience is great. We’re going to push this as far as it can go.”
Renaissance Men: RenMen 1965
At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brookline, Friday at 7:30 p.m.; and Old South Church, Boston, Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets: $8.50-$22.50. www.renaissance-men.com