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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Concert Review: They're Going for Baroque

A revived Renaissance rock Town Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Rave Tesar, Annie Haslam and Mark Lambert of Renaissance.
Photo by the author.
The history of England's progressive rock bands can be labyrinthine, with musicians slipping in and out of lineups, changes of artistic direction and fallow periods as long-running acts dealt with the rise of punk, disco, new wave and the unremitting hostility of the music press. Renaissance are one of those bands, and on Saturday night, they returned to the stage of Town Hall armed with six members and a chamber orchestra. The show, billed as Renaissance: A Symphonic Journey was their first Manhattan stage appearance in five years,

Renaissance were founded (in its first incarnation, anyway) in 1970 as the project of ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty. They folded a few years later, then sprang back to life as (essentially) a different band also called Renaissance. This edition was led by guitarist Michael Dunford and bassist Danny McCulloch. Both men are now deceased. However, singer Annie Haslam is alive, well, and the centerpiece of this Town Hall show. She joined on their third album Prologue and sang on a run of records that made this British band popular in America, though virtually forgotten at home. The band's long history was  recognized and tributed at this show, not just in patter from the stage but in the virtuosity of the current lineup and canny choices in the setlist.

Saturday night found Ms. Haslam in fine voice. Although she chose the right side of the stage, she is still at the helm of her band. In a psychedelic skirt, she cuts a silver-haired and formidable figure. Her sharp sword of a voice probably didn't need the provided amplification, but sounded firm and resonant throughout a long and challenging set. Operatic in style, her singing gives this band its signature sound in the tradition of great female rock singers like Sandy Denny and Grace Slick.

She was flanked by her five bandmates. Keyboardists Rave Tesar and Jason Hart were on the extreme of stage right and left, with Mr. Tesar serving as conductor for the strings winds and horns. He played elaborate figurations on his Yamaha, switching between piano and harpsichord with the easy flick of a switch. More synthesized sounds were the purview of Mr. Hart, who brought organ tones and an occasional pitch-bend to the band's sound, the latter substituting as a kind of extra guitarist.

In the center, bassist David Keyes, drummer Frank Pagano and guitarist Mark Lambert played as a taut trio. Mr. Keyes spun forth webs of melodic lines from his five-string, eyes closed and lost in the groove. Mr. Pagano played with a versatile, jazzy style, making his snare drum seem to speak and occasionally supplanting his sound with a small pad to his left--easier than carting timpani about. Mr. Lambert switched between acoustic guitars throughout the set, picking up the full electric only for the encore.

The band opened with the jazz-inflected, wordless "Prologue" before launching into the dreamy, psychedelic "Trip to the Fair." But the sound fattened and gelled with the addition of the so-called Renaissance Chamber Orchestra. This consisted of a string quartet, three horns, three reed and a second percussionist, all playing behind Lucite sound baffles across the back line of Town Hall's shallow stage. Their textures thickened and lifted the spidery lines of songs like "Carpet of the Sun" and the sprawling "At the Harbour," supporting Ms. Haslam's voice and the wizardry of the two keyboardists.

After an excursion into two songs from their most recent release: 2013's Symphony of Light the band embarked on a run of nostalgia. Songs played included the pop-like "Kalynda", the gorgeous "Island" and the thoughtful "Mother Russia" with Orthodox-style modes in the keyboard part and lyrics inspired by the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The set climaxed with "A Song for All Seasons," the last song featuring the mini-orchestra. It was just the six remaining Renaissance players for the encore: a searing "Ashes are Burning" with long, jazzy solo passages for every standing member of this long-surviving band.

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