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.

In the second half was most attendees’ C-lestial “star” of the concert, the Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) Miserere, with the fabulous five famous high C’s for soprano solo, and the potential for ornamentation accumulated over centuries of proprietary use in the Sistine Chapel. Few of these ornaments were used here, however, though the high tones were ravishingly sung by the soprano soloist.

The outlier in this program of Renaissance jewels was some four centuries younger: the Miserere Mei of Alexander Campkin (b. 1984). Campkin certainly deserves much exposure for his works, and this piece complemented the Allegri, indeed paid homage to it by mirroring a high soprano leap of a fourth (although a mere B-flat, not a C). It was music set at two opposite poles of sound: the basses acting as anchor in pedal tones (a note held steady over several beats, even measures) almost throughout, and the trebles singing clusters of chords above.

Sincere thanks are due Cappella Romana for making this and other wonderful musical experiences possible to Portland music lovers. Executive Director Mark Powell is dedicated to early music and has the experience and knowledge base to make this kind of event happen. From initial contact with agents/conductors to the final farewell at the airport, it is quite the undertaking for an organization of this size. Well done, Mark and CR.

When a composer’s original artistry is complemented by inspired singing, we have a perfect storm of singing. The choir etched each phrase in high relief, combined with thoughtful cloning of word accent, bloom and decay of each choral line and a perfection of intonation through unification (the same “o,” the same “a”) of vowels.

These elements often are overlooked with lesser choirs, even well-directed choruses. Phrases must have their own lifeblood, allowing them to grow and diminish. Even though – perhaps especially though – these elements were never marked in early music scores, we must depend on the inflection of the text, and our own instincts, to guide us to make the music live again centuries later. And, just as important, vowel color must be absolutely matched to achieve perfect intonation and blend. Great singers know this; great conductors demand it.

Such attention to authenticity and detail displays tremendous respect for audiences who are or aspire to be devotees of this period of music. Great literature, the very best choral singing; its a gift. No question that this was a high point of the season.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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