A choral piece for “only” 19 parts is almost too easy for the experienced voices of Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers.
Last year they sang two pieces in 40 parts, which artistic director Thomas Edward Morgan admits was “a challenging thing to do — in the middle of winter and flu season!” Each of the 40 parts had to be sung by only a single singer, so any absences would have scuttled the performance.
With those works successfully performed last year, the group is now adding a 19-voice motet from the Renaissance to their list of musical accomplishments. “The group discovered that having done [the 40-voice pieces] last year, this other piece is considerably more accessible,” Morgan says.
The piece is “O bone Jesu” (Oh, good Jesus), by the 16th-century Scottish composer Robert Carver, which Morgan has wanted to perform for a long time. It will be part of “Voices and Viols,” a joint concert between Ars Nova and STRING, a viola da gamba trio directed by Ann Marie Morgan.
Thomas Morgan and Ann Marie Morgan — they are not related — planned the program together. “Ann Marie had approached me a couple of years ago about doing a program this season,” Thomas Morgan says. “She is a world-class performer on her instrument, so any opportunity you get to perform with an instrumentalist of that caliber is something that you want to take advantage of.”
The viola da gamba is a fretted string instrument of the Renaissance period that is played with a bow. The name, meaning “viol for the leg,” refers to the fact that the instruments are held between the legs, like a modern cello. STRING was formed in 2016 by Anne Marie Morgan with fellow gambists Sarah Biber and Sandra Miller to perform music for gamba as it was originally heard.
Because the gamba was particularly popular in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, that was the music that was the natural fit for their joint program with Ars Nova. “Voices and Viols” will include verse anthems works by William Byrd, Thomas Morley and Orlando Gibbons, three of the most important Renaissance English composers.
Verse anthems are sacred works that alternate between full choir and soloists or smaller groups. “This allows us to have the alternation of textures between the viols and solo voices that play together, and the full chorus,” Morgan explains.
“Singers love to sing the music of this era because with independent voices, they always have significant melody all the time,” he says. “There’s wonderful music from the English Renaissance, and when these pieces were performed in chapel, they were frequently done with viols instead of with organ.
“So this is a wonderful opportunity to explore this repertoire in the way it was originally heard.”
The program opens with verse anthems by Byrd and concludes with similar works by Morley and Gibbons. In between there will be a variety of contrasting works, including small sacred motets by 16th-century Italian composer Orazio Vecchi sung by a few men from the full chorus. There will also be other works in various combinations of gambas with small vocal groups.
In each half of the concert, STRING will play a set of two pieces for gambas alone. Each set will open with a fantasia for three voices, followed by a set of variations on the popular 16th-century tune known as “Browning,” or “The leaves be greene.” One of the most common works for gamba “consorts,” or ensembles, “Browning” was set by most English composers of the time, most often in a series of virtuoso variations.
And the program of English Renaissance music gave Thomas Morgan the opening to perform Carver’s 19-voice “O bone Jesu.” A meditation on the word “Jesu” — which Ars Nova will sing with the Scottish pronunciation of Latin as “Jay-ziu,” — this is a work not often heard in live concerts.
“It’s quite a challenging piece” Morgan says. “You have large 19-part textures that we perform with the whole ensemble. And then interspersed are wonderful, very decorated trios and quartets, different numbers of solo voices. It’s really an unusual piece.”
Besides the Carver piece, what Morgan is most excited about is the opportunity to perform with the gambas. “Because they don’t use modern vibrato, the gamba doesn’t have as directly emotional a sound,” he says. “It’s a much more subtle thing. When you get to hear the music on the level of detail that the gambas can do, it really inspires the singers to perform that way, too.
“It makes for a unique showcase of this repertoire, and challenges both the singers and the audience to tune in to the details.”
On the Bill: “Voices and Viols.” Ars Nova Singers and STRING. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine St., Boulder. 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant St., Denver. Tickets: 303-499-3165, arsnovasingers.org.