peter phillips

Tallis Scholars: perfect storm of singing

Renowned English choir’s Portland performance declares high ‘C’ –son for Sistine Chapel music 

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

The Tallis Scholars are never going to disappoint, especially in an early-music-loving city like Portland. At St. Mary’s Cathedral this past Sunday, the pews were filled and the renaissance polyphony floated above.

Established 46 years ago and still conducted by founder Peter Phillips, the esteemed English vocal ensemble delivered a brilliant program in all respects: use of the space and of the singers, and choice of literature, with a focus on music of the Sistine Chapel in the high Renaissance. The afternoon was a revelation in capturing an audience’s mind.

The Tallis Scholars sang at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

As described by Portland singer and Renaissance music scholar Dr. Kerry McCarthy, whose exemplary skills in academic engagement were evident in the pre-concert lecture, “international” was a key word in the Sistine Chapel choir. During this period (c. 1575 – 1600), the loft was chock full of singers from Spain, France and of course Italy. This theme was mirrored in the Tallis Scholars’ program, which included music from Spain (Morales), Burgundy (des Prez) and France (Carpentras).

Peter Phillips cleverly programmed a composite Palestrina Mass, interweaving five sections of the ordinary from five different Mass settings by the great Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. These served as linchpins, pulling us back each time to what we perceive as the classic Sistine Chapel polyphony. These were my favorites, especially the Kyrie Missa Assumpta est Maria (God has Assumed the Virgin Mary to the Heavens) and the “Credo,” from the Missa Papae Marcelli (Mass in Honor of Pope Marcellus).

Another attraction of this concert was the way in which Mr. Phillips deployed his forces, using almost as many formations as the Dallas Cowboys. With a base of 10 singers, the choir reduced to only four in Quam pulchra es (How Beautiful and Fair) of Italian composer Costanzo Festa, then expanded to six singers for Lamentations by French composer Elzea Genet Carpentras, and the aforementioned “Credo”.

This fourth Sunday in Lent was normally a day to relax a bit from the rigors of the Lenten season, but the Tallis Scholars’ singers’ schedule offered little respite. Finishing up a six-in-a-row US concert jaunt, they performed in Seattle on the previous night, vanned to Portland and began to tune at St. Mary’s Cathedral late Sunday morning. Somewhere in there they probably caught a few winks.

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