Ave Maris Stella, the highly regarded Midcoast a cappella vocal ensemble, will perform a wide-ranging program of mostly early music to celebrate the turning of the year this weekend in Camden and Belfast. Repertoire will cover a wide range of time periods, from Medieval through 20th century; and styles, from chant to polyphony and beyond.

The annual “Musike for the Nywe Yeare” concert will be presented Saturday, Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Belfast Free Library, 106 High St. (snow date Feb. 6); and Sunday, Jan. 31 at 3 p.m. at Camden’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 33 Chestnut St. (snow date Feb. 7). Suggested donation at the door will be $10; a reception will follow in Camden.

Opening the program will be an international journey complete with works from or about Sicily, Italy, France and the mythical land of Thule. Also featured will be two settings of the Marian text “Beata Viscera,” followed by two settings, one old and one new, of “Ave Maria”: a contemporary one, by Gustav Holst, sung just by the women; and a polyphonic double-chorus setting by Tomas Luis de Victoria featuring all 19 singers.

To brighten the dark days of winter, Josquin’s setting of “Tu Pauperum (Thou refuge of the destitute)” from the motet “Magnus es tu, Domine” will open the second half, followed by a setting from the “Worcester Fragments” of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei from “La Messe de Tournai.” A lively trip to the Republic of Georgia, replete with lullabies and traveling songs, will be followed by two stirring and complex 20th-century works: Kenneth Leighton’s “Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child” featuring Dee Bielenberg as soprano soloist; and “There Will Be Rest” by Frank Ticheli.

Ave Maris Stella performs in wide a variety of languages and styles, from English to Italian to Latin to Spanish; and from sacred to secular to humorous. The group likes to bring unusual works to Maine audiences, yet more familiar music by such renowned composers as Byrd, Dufay, Monteverdi, Palestrina and Josquin also is a large part of the group’s repertoire. Ave Maris Stella has become well known for its work to educate audiences through extensive program notes and spoken introductions.

Music director Elena Hamilton said it is a challenge to put a specific label on what the group does, “but that’s what makes our experiment so interesting. We pride ourselves on the diversity of music we perform … For our audiences, we’ve found that our concerts have something for almost everybody who loves vocal music.”
Indeed, in addition to the expected liturgical works, Ave Maris Stella sings Sephardic songs, madrigals in many languages and selections from far-flung locales. While the focus is on early music, the ensemble also has delved into appropriate settings by contemporary composers such as Arvo Part, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Duruflé, the Hungarian Lajos Bardos, the American Morten Lauridsen and the late Kenneth Leighton. While the group mainly performs a cappella, appropriate instrumentation (recorders, percussion, strings) is occasionally added.

Founded early in the 21st century, Ave Maris Stella (the name translates to “Hail, Star of the Sea”) is unusual in that it is a collectively run, all-volunteer organization. Membership is by audition, and singers share the responsibility of bringing music selections to the group. They also take turns teaching and leading. The group has developed a loyal following and has performed as part of the VanderKay summer music series in Blue Hill; at New Year’s By the Bay and the St. Margaret’s Church music series in Belfast; and at various venues around Maine including Merrill Auditorium in Portland, the Henry Knox Mansion in Thomaston, the Camden Opera House and public library, St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Camden (the group’s “home” venue), St. Denis Catholic Church in Whitefield, First Church in Belfast, Elán Fine Arts Gallery in Rockport and as part of the Rockland Public Library’s music series.

The group generally performs two scheduled concert sets per year, in January and early summer, and is available by invitation at other times. For more information, call 236-9413 or visit avemarisstella.org.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to dernest@villagesoup.com.