Tallis in Seattle

A not well-publicized but well-done chamber music concert featured Britain's Tallis Scholars.
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Tallis Scholars. (Richard Haughton)

A not well-publicized but well-done chamber music concert featured Britain's Tallis Scholars.

High summer in Seattle offers a reasonable amount of good music. There is the summer opera — this year no less than 11 performances of Verdi's "Aida" — and, until the middle of August, Seattle Chamber Music's concerts at Lakeside and the Overlake School. An interesting additional bonus, in a rather different style, has been the concerts linked with the Tallis Scholars' U.S. Summer School at the end of July and early August. On July 27, Peter Philips, the founder and director of Britain's Tallis Scholars, with some members of his group and Seattle's own Tudor Choir, opened the Summer School with a concert at St. James's Cathedral. And as the culmination of their week's work, on Friday, August 1, also at St. James's, the summer school participants gave a concert of sixteenth century English church music.

The 60 volunteer singers had studied and practiced with Peter Phillips and his colleagues Janet Coxwell, David Woodcock, and Patrick Craig, who also shared the conducting. For people with sympathetic ears, the church music written in the Renaissance period by master composers in Italy, Spain, and England is as close to perfect music as one can get. The Tallis Summer School chose a challenging and varied program from the great English composers, and did it proud.

There were two anthems from William Byrd, as well as his well-known "Mass for Four Voices." The Tallis works included five of his psalm tune settings and the brief but astonishingly complex and powerful canonic setting of "Miserere Nobis." The program also offered interesting pieces by Thomas Weelkes and the lesser known Robert Fayrfax, and concluded with the brilliant and vigorous anthem "O Clap Your Hands" by Orlando Gibbons. For the smaller pieces, the group split into smaller numbers, but for most of the program, all members sang.

It is extremely unlikely that this music was ever in its own time performed by as many as the sixty singers assembled on this occasion. It is a tribute to the quality of their performances that in spite of their numbers, both the words and the often very complex musical textures were invariably clear although somewhat dominated by the higher voices since women significantly outnumbered men. Remarkable, too, was the whole choir's consistent purity of tone and accuracy of tuning. We were given no information on the status or background of the Summer School volunteers, but whether or not they included professional singers, the quality of their collective performance would have graced any professional concert venue, even if deprived of St. James's sympathetic acoustic.

A challenge in the performance of this music is to catch the right balance between its apparently often austere exterior, and the variety of inner life and drama that these great composers managed to convey within the long legato lines and strict counterpoint that characterize their musical styles. The Summer School was entirely successful in this. They delivered forcefully the dynamic thrust of the young Orlando Gibbons' triumphant anthem, they caught very well the sombre grief of Weelkes's "When David Heard that Absalon was Slain"; and in the long "Gloria" section of the Byrd Mass, they powerfully marked the climax in the words near the end, "For you alone are holy, you alone are the Lord." But they were throughout entirely faithful to the stylistic restraint of the music.

The occasion benefitted considerably from Peter Philips' brief but sympathetic introductions to the main pieces. These Summer Schools happen each year in Britain, Australia, and Seattle. We have our own fine tradition of Renaissance choral singing, but the annual visits of the Tallis Scholars' representatives are a valuable addition. On this occasion there had been little advance publicity — perhaps it was intended to be semi-private — but the audience made up for its somewhat sparse numbers by the quality of its listening and its obvious enthusiasm.


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