The Tallis Scholars Review- Sacred Choral Music at it's Best

Under the auspices of Symphony Center Presents, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association offers many performances each year by renowned guest artists. One such Special Concert, as part of the "Shakespeare in Music Celebration", featuring the acclaimed “Tallis Scholars”, a British a cappella group specializing in Renaissance polyphony took place Tuesday night, April 5, 2016 at The Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut, Chicago.

 

This setting was absolutely made-to-order for sacred choral music. Located in the Magnificent Mile neighborhood of Chicago, directly across Michigan Avenue from The John Hancock Center, the Gothic Revival masterpiece, designed by Ralph Adams Cram who simultaneously worked on St. John the Divine in New York City, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, when it was already 101 years old. The sanctuary where the concert took place was literally gorgeous. The enormous wooden altar behind the Tallis Scholars looked like it was constructed of complicated gingerbread. The massive vaulted domed ceiling rose to a pinnacle covered by off-white marble interspersed with wooden and metal fretwork. Behind the altar rising as high as the eye could see were stained glass windows which caught the light of austere glass chandeliers and reflected multi-colored images from the antiquity of Christianity. To the right facing the altar rose the pipes and casing of a double-story organ, also built of mellowed antique woods and flanked by intricately scrolled ironwork. The wonderful acoustics amplified and sent back the splendid sounds of these superbly talented singers, who have produced 60 unique CD’s and given 2000 concerts in this very specialized niche of musical accomplishment. The church housed a sold-out crowd who ultimately gave a standing ovation to this remarkable core group of 10 singers.

The Tallis Scholars; photo courtesy of Eric Richmond

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585 by the Julian calendar), considered one of England’s foremost composers, holds a primary position in anthologies of English choral music. He served successive monarchs as organist and composer, beginning with Henry the Eighth, and was known for switching the style of his compositions to suit their different demands. He was also capable of avoiding religious controversies, and remained,  as did  his protege William Byrd after him, a Roman Catholic. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry the Eighth and Anne Boleyn, granted to Tallis and Byrd a 21 year monopoly for polyphonic music, and a patent to print and publish music. His work provides a rhythmic variety and differentiation of moods depending on the meaning of his texts, and he actually helped found a relationship combining words with music.

 

The Tallis Scholars, founded in 1973 by Peter Phillips, a former organ scholar at St. John’s College, Oxford, sought to produce a distinctive sound, and, since winning the “Record of The Year” Gramaphone Award in 1987, this professional early music vocal group normally consisting of two singers per part have been recognized as one the world’s leading ensembles in Renaissance polyphony. Polyphony is a type of musical texture; it describes how the various aspects of a musical composition-melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic - come together to create the overall sound and quality of the work; specifically, it consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody.

 

 The program on April 5th consisted of 3 pieces by William Byrd, "Laetentur Coeli","Salve Regina" and "Vigilate; “Missa Western Wynde”, by John Taverner; Richard Davy’s version of “Salve Regina”, and a couplet of “Lamentations”, the first by Thomas Tallis himself, entitled “Lamentations 1”; the second, “Lamentations”, by Alfonso Ferrabosco. Finally, there was a much appreciated encore, another piece by William Byrd; appropriately enough, it was a lamentation on the death of Thomas Tallis, entitled “Ye Sacred Muses”.

 

The music that swells and ascends from the Tallis Scholars, all cled in black, led by the  strong but gentle baton of Phillips, is rich and complex beyond measure. Certainly their voices blend beautifully as they sing hymns of praise, adoration, loss and devotion, but the multiple parts and melodies create an ambience of many special parts coalescing, not  simply a single melodic thread. The evening of the concert, they seemed to produce- not the somber tolling of Gregorian chants- but the very music of the spheres, as the glorious sounds  seemingly reached up  beyond the dome of the fine old church almost to the very  vaults of heaven, which is, of course, where they were directed. This reviewer felt as though there were an entire orchestra on that altar!

 

The Tallis Scholars'  accomplishments include contributing to a much wider and greater recognition in the world of the works of such great composers as those whose works comprised this program. Since 1980, they’ve recorded solely under their own label, Gimell Records, established by Peter Phillips and Steve Smith. The name comes from the Latin word “gimellus”, a technical term meaning twin, a signpost in singing. Their recordings cover over 150 years of music history, generally the period from 1450-1600.

 

The Shakespeare in Music Celebration, part of the citywide Shakespeare 400 Chicago Celebration, will be presenting many wonderful upcoming concerts.

 

 For information and tickets, go to CSO

 

 

 

 

 

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