Tallis Scholars Premiere Nico Muhly in Midtown

Tallis Scholars: A Renaissance Christmas

Tallis Scholars. Photo: Nick Rutter.

Miller Theatre Early Music Series

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

December 1, 2018

Published on Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, made their annual appearance in New York as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown. The program was billed as a dual celebration — the 45th anniversary of the Tallis Scholars and Miller Theatre’s 30th anniversary season.

In honor of the occasion, Miller Theatre commissioned a new piece for the Tallis Scholars by composer Nico Muhly. Muhly has, of late, garnered a great deal of attention for two Metropolitan Opera commissions  — Two Boys and Marnie — but he often talks about his first love being choral music (he began his musical career as a chorister). Muhly’s choral works are exquisitely crafted and texturally luminous. Rough Notes (2018), his new piece for the concert at St. Mary’s, took its texts from two diary entries by Robert Falcon Scott, written near the end of his ill-fated voyage to Antarctica. The first excerpt describes the aurora australis, providing words such as “arches, bands, and curtains”  that are ripe for colorful musical setting. The second was Scott’s stoic expression of confidence in his team’s ability to accept their impending deaths with dignity. Muhly’s use of lush cluster chords in the first section gave way to more sharply etched, but still glinting, harmonies in the second, as well as poignantly arcing melodies. The divided choir of ten voices was skilfully overlapped to sound like many times that number. It is always fascinating to hear the Tallis Scholars switch centuries, and thus style, to perform contemporary repertoire; for instance, their CD of Arvo Pärt’s music is a treasure. One hopes that they might collaborate on a recording with Muhly in the future.

The rest of the program was of considerably earlier music, but ranged widely in chronology. The earliest piece was an elegant and under-heralded Magnificat setting by John Nesbett from the late Fifteenth century that is found in the Eton Choirbook. Chant passages give way to various fragments of the ensemble that pit low register vs. high for much of the piece. It culminates by finally bringing all the voices together in a rousing climax. The Tallis Scholars has, of yet, not recorded Nesbett, but Peter Phillips has committed the Magnificat to disc in an inspired performance with the Choir of Merton College, Oxford (The Marian Collection, Delphian, 2014).  

Palestrina’s motet Hodie Christus natus est, and the eponymous parody mass which uses this as its source material, were the centerpiece of the concert. The motet was performed jubilantly and with abundant clarity. The mass is one of Palestrina’s finest. He took the natural zest of its source material, added plenty of contrapuntal elaborations, and made subtle shifts to supply a thoughtful rendition of the text. Although we are, in terms of the liturgical calendar, in the midst of the reflective period of Advent, being propelled forward to the midst of some of the most ebullient yet substantial Christmas music of the Renaissance was a welcome inauguration of the season.

The two works that concluded the concert dealt with different aspects of the Christmas story. William Byrd’s Lullaby is actually quite an unsettling piece; its text deals with the Slaughter of the Innocents as ordered by Herod. One is left to imagine the infant Jesus being consoled by Mary and Joseph in the midst of their flight from persecution. Byrd composed it in the Sixteenth century (it was published in 1588), but Lullaby was the piece on the concert most tailored to this moment, evoking concerns of our time: the plight of refugees, the slaughter of innocent bystanders by acts of senseless aggression: particularly the vulnerability of children to indiscriminate bombing abroad and the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.

The last piece returned to a festive spirit and brought the Tallis Scholars to the cusp of the Baroque with Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat V with interpolations of two carols: Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo. During the Christmas season, interspersing carols and sections of the Magnificat was a standard practice in Baroque-era Lutheran churches; J.S. Bach might even have done so in the services he led at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Praetorius plus two carols gave the Tallis Scholars an opportunity to share three of their most-performed Christmas pieces. From seemingly effortless floating high notes to sonorous bass singing, with tons of deftly rendered imitative passages in the inner voices, the group made a glorious sound. One eagerly awaits their return to New York during their 46th season.

Tanglewood FCM 2017 Highlights (Pt. 1)

Nathan Davis, “The Sand Reckoner.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood (in Lenox, Massachusetts) was curated by three youngish stars of the new music community: pianist Jacob Greenberg (ICE), cellist Kathryn Bates (Del Sol Quartet), and violist Nadia Sirota (Q2, ACME). Each planned a chamber music concert, consisting of commissioned new works and contemporary repertory selections. The curators combined forces with the BSO in selecting pieces for the festival’s finale, an orchestra concert conducted by Stefan Asbury and Vinay Parameswaran.
  • Commissioned works included vocal pieces by Nathan Davis and Anthony Cheung, a string quartet (with copious use of water-filled glasses and glass bowls) by Kui Dong, and Clip, a chamber ensemble work by Nico Muhly (for which I contributed program notes). These showed a diversity of musical approaches. Davis and Cheung took postmodern textual compiling as the jumping off point for stylistically varied and technically demanding singing. Dong revelled in glassine textures, both in the strings and with the water glasses themselves, while Muhly presented one of his most rhythmically intricate works to date, in places extending the language of post-minimalism towards the polyrhythms of late modernity.

George Lewis with the performers of “Anthem.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • A standout on the concert curated by Greenberg on Thursday, August 10th was Columbia University professor George Lewis’s first appearance at Tanglewood (at age 65). Noteworthy for his work with AACM and a catalogue of compositions encompassing facets of concert music, jazz, improvisation, and electronics, Lewis was represented by Anthem, a 2012 piece originally written for Wet Ink Ensemble. At Tanglewood, Wet Ink’s vocalist Katie Soper, herself a prominent and creative composer, delivered a supersonic performance of a part written in Sprechstimme to Lewis’s own text about TV talking heads and subversive political commentary. Teddy Poll conducted, Greenberg contributed electronics, and the rest of the players, to a person impressive, were mostly guest musicians from ICE. Imaginatively scored and surpassingly energetic, Anthem was a rousing closer to FCM’s first evening.

Fromm Players perform
Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • Friday afternoon featured a program of string quartets curated by Bates. A detailed and fine-tuned performance of Ben Johnston’s microtonal Fourth String Quartet by the Fromm Players (for which I was fortunate to contribute program notes) loomed large, but Bates introduced other fine pieces to Tanglewood audiences as well.
  • Croatoan II for string quartet and percussion by Moritz Eggert, supplied the proceedings with a welcome dose of humor, treating the mystery of a disappearing colony of early American settlers with more whimsy than tragedy. Percussionist Tyler Flynt, using what Bates described as a “suitcase’s worth” of hand percussion instruments, made the quick changes both in tempo and instruments seem effortless. Rene Orth’s Stripped (2015), a piece written in memory of the trumpeter Alex Greene, her Curtis classmate, began with noise-based sound effects and traversed an imaginative pathway to soaring harmonics. Although it didn’t quite gel in the Tanglewood performance, Terry Riley’s G Song is an attractive deployment of all manner of scalar patterns and jazzy cadence-points (look for Del Sol Quartet’s next CD to hear it more authoritatively rendered).

Eggert’s “Croatoan II.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • Violinist Cameron Daly and cellist Chava Appiah performed Lei Liang’s Gobi Canticle, a piece that incorporates material and techniques from Mongolian string music. Liang visited the Nei Monggol region in 1996 to learn more about its music-making. This is deftly demonstrated in Gobi Canticle, which is at turns gently lyrical and boldly dramatic in cast.
  • I was most pleased to be introduced to the work of Jack Body (1944-2015), the recently departed New Zealand composer whose works synthesize ethnomusicology and composition. The wonderfully fleet and attractive Flurry (2002), in a version for three string quartets, opened Friday’s concert. Led by Bates, this all-too-brief work was immediately encored. One was glad to have the chance to hear it again and, unlike some encores, the performance was just as strong the second time around.

Kathryn Bates leads three string quartets in a performance of
Jack Body’s “Flurry.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • Later this week I will be writing more about FCM, as well as the BSO concerts that coincided with the festival. The article will appear on both my blog and Sequenza 21.

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Eighth Blackbird: “Filament” (CD Review)

Filament

Eighth Blackbird

Cedille Records CD 90000 157

The “M” word: minimalism: oft-quoted, sometimes maligned, often misunderstood, and seldom accepted as a self-descriptor by composers. We get into ever more thorny ground as we begin to contemplate “post-minimalism:” does it describe chronology, influence, or some kind of murky musical terrain? If we are to use the descriptor for chronology, even Philip Glass suggests that his pieces departed very early from minimalism. So what are listeners to do with a release such as Filament, on which there is a 17-minute long piece of process music (Two Pages by Glass) that clearly makes much out of comparatively little? Further, what do we call pieces by the younger generation of indie classical composers (another loaded term), clearly enamored with repetition, who make up the bulk of this disc? Perhaps it is better to avoid the style tags altogether and instead say that each of the pieces on Filament is composed by a creator fascinated with repetition, but each one in a different way.

Bryce Dessner channels the instrumentation and affect of murder ballads of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries to create the rustic ostinatos of Murder Ballades. Written for a celebration of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak is designed to hearken back to the “obsessive repetition” of the 1970s, but it does so in a powerfully articulated fashion. Son Lux’s contributions, abetted by the vocals of Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), are brief remixes of material from the album. Filament’s high point is a high octane and highly coordinated performance of Glass’s Two Pages. A single, propulsive line that can be played by any combination of instruments: the elements couldn’t be more minimalist in conception, but the execution is anything but.