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.

Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s (Concert Review)

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Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s: Bass Hit

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 10th, the Tallis Scholars found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Scheduled to give their annual Renaissance Christmas concert as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ten-voice ensemble was decimated to nine. Long-time member bass Robert Macdonald was ill and had been rendered voiceless. Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars’ director, quipped from onstage that unless he sang, which the rest of the singers “felt unwise,” the group’s other bass, Tim Whiteley, would have to go it alone. MacDonald did not appear to be the only member suffering. During the course of the concert, there were several sniffles onstage and far more water being chugged than is the group’s usual practice. Gamely they had decided to appear regardless.

 

There was yet another wrinkle to the story. During the first half of the concert the Tallis Scholars had planned to feature Cipriano de Rore’s Missa Praeter rerum seriem, a composition that includes many divisi, including a number of passages where each bass has his own part. A substitution was in order, and the solution was a welcome one: Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria. One of the composer’s last works, it demonstrates his movement from a more modal to a quasi-tonal harmonic method of organization. Although outnumbered, Whiteley never seemed vocally outgunned. Indeed, the Tallis Scholars’ long association helped them to rebalance their forces in seemingly effortless fashion. The clarity of lines and fine-tuned chords which resulted were truly remarkable sounding.

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Although the audience had been deprived of De Rore on the first half, the second provided some compensation with a sprightly, joyous rendition of his Hodie Christus natus est setting. Magnificat Primi Toni, by Tomás Luis de Victoria, features antiphonal division of the choir into two four-part units. Fortunately for this occasion it doesn’t include bass divisi, but there are some stellar passages for high sopranos that arched angelically upward, as well as sturdy tutti declamation.

 

Victoria, Palestrina, and even de Rore are familiar composers to many Renaissance listeners, but the next two selections on the program, both Salve Regina settings, were composed by figures who aren’t yet “household names.” Based on the quality of these works alone, they should be. Claudin de Sermisy’s Salve Regina was filled with imitative counterpoint, including four-voice canons and fetching duets, which were delivered with abundant precision by the Tallis Scholars. Hernando de Franco, a Spanish composer who resided in Mexico, must have enjoyed setting the Salve Regina text – or at the very least been frequently requested to do so – there are five of them attributed to him. Here, chant was weaved into the fabric of the piece, interspersing thick-voiced passages of contrapuntal activity.

 

The concert concluded with O Splendor Gloriae, a composition that appears to have been a collaboration between John Taverner and Christopher Tye. The piece never feels like a ragtag assemblage, but there are significant differences among its various sections. O Splendor has a long-ish text, describing the Creation story from the Fall to Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. Even after such a taxing program, and under harried circumstances, the Tallis Scholars brought a warm sound to bear here. This is no mean feat, as the work contains a number of high-lying lines. In addition to the sopranos who sustained these, Whiteley must be commended for his efforts. The bass brought sonorous support to the work’s chordal passages and hardy declamation during sections for subsets of the ensemble. It was a testament to the Tallis Scholars’ consummate professionalism that, despite challenging circumstances,  they made such stirring music.  

Scholars of Tallis … and Pärt too

Peter Phillips conducts the Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips conducts the Tallis Scholars

Christmas Across Centuries

The Tallis Scholars

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series

December 5th

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

On Saturday December 5th at New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, presented a program that included two composers firmly ensconced in their wheelhouse. Sacris Solemniis and Gaude, Gaude, Gaude by John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558), with long held chant notes offset by passages of sumptuous counterpoint and spare plainsong, provided context and set the stage for the later Renaissance work on the program, Thomas Tallis’s Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis. This piece is also filled with the intricate polyphony, but it makes use of what was by then an archaic device – long held notes in the tenor voice. At St. Mary’s, the piece felt jubilant, bustling with busy passage work and corruscated with counter-melodies.

The concert also featured music by a composer active more recently, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, who turned eighty this past year. These newer works were given incandescent performances. In contrast to the Tallis mass’s busy textures, Pärt’s O Antiphons epitomized clarity of line. The upper voices soared in his Magnificat. I am the True Vine featured delicate and touching harmonies, rendered by the Tallis Scholars with impressively pure diction. Indeed, while one hesitates to downplay the Renaissance portion of this thoughtful and well-balanced program, it was the Pärt that stole the show.