A Very RenMen Christmas – Now Available!
Renaissance Men Records and Releases Holiday Single “Angels We Have Heard on High” despite COVID-19 Pandemic
By Samantha Dotterweich
In early December of last year, Renaissance Men’s annual Christmas gala came and went without a hitch, with a stellar performance, a cooperative audience, and a very large batch of home-made eggnog consumed. More importantly, a series of great raw tracks had been captured. The New England-based professional choral ensemble had hired producer Jeffrey Means (Assistant Professor of Composition, Berklee School of Music) to record the concert with the intention of producing a second album, "A Very RenMen Christmas LIVE!" after the success of their first album, RenMen Laments (on Navona Records/Naxos Direct). Unfortunately, in late February of 2020, Means and RenMen realized that there was a technical problem with the recording of one key piece, Saunder Choi’s tour de force, “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Just as the group began planning to re-record this last track, the outbreak of COVID-19 brought recording to a standstill. St. Mary's Episcopal Church (Newton, MA) where they had recorded the concert, closed their doors to all groups, meetings, and services. Concert venues canceled their seasons, studios closed their doors, and the world embraced video-conferencing as the only safe means of meeting together. Meanwhile, the deadline to deliver fully mastered tracks to PARMA, the album producer, loomed eight weeks away. With the average post-production work taking about four weeks, RenMen scrambled to find a solution.
The group considered various courses of action, according to Anthony Burkes Garza, Bass and General Manager of RenMen: “With so many normal solutions off the table, we discussed several emerging COVID options, such as the “virtual choir” recordings or multi-tracking with 3-4 singers performing all the parts. We even considered going forward with the album without that track.” The consensus of the management team, however, was that “Angels” was a critical track for the album and its complexity was beyond virtual recording solutions.
“I truly began to lose hope. If we couldn't re-record Choi’s piece, our second album would miss its scheduled release date of November 2020, timed for Christmas sales” said Peter Schilling, Baritone and RenMen’s Business Manager. “We would ultimately have to push the release to November 2021 - with nothing to show for 2020.”
RenMen were determined to record “Angels.” For the last five years, it had been a cornerstone piece in their annual Christmas gala, and the group couldn’t envision the album without the thrilling compositional techniques employed by Saunder Choi. When writing the piece, Choi wanted to “showcase the flexibility of the carol by setting it in different ways - Gregorian chant, gospel, show choir, etc.” Choi recognized that RenMen were “one of the most polished lower voice ensembles in New England” and felt honored to have them record his work. “Saunder's Angels is the centerpiece of our Christmas program and has been a favorite of our regional audiences over the last five years. We were so excited to bring his electrifying work to life in a way only RenMen can” (Eric Christopher Perry, Tenor and Artistic Director of RenMen).
In the eleventh hour, RenMen approached the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill about the possibility of using their sanctuary for a few hours for recording. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Redeemer had been an early adopter of Facebook Live and YouTube as a means of providing virtual services to its parishioners. “All of the research was showing that, if singing was done with masks, and distanced, with good ventilation, and other precautions such as staggered arrival and departure, we could safely manage the risk. It’s all common sense now, but at the time when we were starting to re-engage our musicians, it was pretty anxiety-inducing” (Michael Murray, Director of Music). After consulting several doctors and scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Murray and Mike Dangelo, rector, began recording service music, anthems, and motets with limited staff. They relied on the amazing acoustics of the Redeemer sanctuary to blend the distant voices.
Although doubtful of how the resulting track would sound, the group agreed to Redeemer's requirements that they follow the church’s social distancing and masking protocols. RenMen gratefully re-recorded the Choi, fully masked and distanced, on the last Saturday morning before their deadline with PARMA records.
“Breathing with the mask on was probably the most difficult part, but any other barriers the mask created were purely psychosomatic,” said Will Prapestis, Baritone, Social Media Consultant for RenMen, and soloist in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” “It helps being around colleagues and organizations whom you really trust, and who have your safety and comfort as their top priorities.”
Surprisingly, the resulting seven minute track had no issues with clarity, blend, or timbre, matching beautifully with the tracks recorded at St. Mary's months prior. As a result, RenMen were able to deliver the full set of tracks to PARMA. “Angels” was released as a single on October 17th and the full album, A Very RenMen Christmas LIVE!, on November 13th. Artistic Director Eric Christopher Perry is thrilled by the result: “We couldn’t think of a better time to get this music ready for people when they need a boost, especially since we can’t perform live this holiday season.”
Given the condemning conclusions published jointly by the ACDA, NATS, and PAMA on May 6, 2020 regarding the perils of public singing in the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine (View Webinar and Summary) many choral organizations felt overwhelming pressure to shut down completely. RenMen’s success with “Angels” has encouraging implications for both the choral world and for Renaissance Men. Artistic Director Eric Perry views commercial recordings as both a bridge through the pandemic and a model for future work: “We wanted to try it out in a controlled environment...when we go back into the studio in 2021, we will have many of the logistical details worked out and can focus not on the pandemic, but on artistry.” Renaissance Men hope to record two more albums in 2021. Their re-recorded track of Saunder Choi's "Angels We Have Heard on High" proves that responsible social distancing and the use of masks during a professional recording session can work and, indeed, does work.
NOW AVAILABLE! A Very RenMen Christmas LIVE! features seasonal classical selections, original compositions, and cherished carols, including Paul John Rudoi’s “Cantate Domino,” Daniel E Gawthrop’s “The Longest Night,” “Angels We Have Heard On High” arranged by composer Saunder Choi, and beloved favorites like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
An exceptional chamber vocal ensemble, Renaissance Men are committed to advancing and invigorating the art of chamber music for tenor, baritone, and bass voices across genres and generations through world-class performance, education, and commissions; within New England and across the United States. In less than five years, Renaissance Men have paved their way into Boston’s cultural landscape through seven widely attended concert series, the launch of their first album RenMen Laments on Navona Records/Naxos Direct, and the performance of several U.S. and world premieres by internationally celebrated composers including Patricia Van Ness and Daniel E. Gawthrop. In 2018, RenMen made their national debut at the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana and in 2019 were featured in Emmanuel Music’s Late Night at Emmanuel series with RenMen On This Island, which highlights music from the British Isles and Ireland. RenMen have performed in every New England state as well as New York and Pennsylvania. For more information, visit renmenmusic.com and follow @renmenmusic on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.