Tallis Scholars, 12/1/18
Frank, Linnea, and I heard the Tallis Scholars in *A Renaissance Christmas* on 12/1/18. The concert was presented by the Miller Theater at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square, known as Smoky Mary's to the in crowd. We got tickets back in July, the very moment they went on sale, so we had the extra delight of sitting in row H, very close to the singers.
The Tallis Scholars is a group of ten singers, six women and four men, conducted by Peter Phillips. I'd heard them on recordings but never heard them in person. I am now committed to hear them every time they come to town! Oh what an incredible concert. Their sound is ripe and vibrant but clean, the absolutely perfect sound for the early music that is their specialty. I'd heard Chanticleer the night before, and as good as those male sopranos are, it was remarkable to hear how different a biological female sounds up there. So much more ease and bloom. Frank described their overall sound as "comfortable" - - they have such marvelous ease with the music, it's effortlessly ravishing for them.
They opened with two pieces by Palestrina, the "Hodie Christus natus est" and the Kyrie and Gloria from the *Missa Hodie Christus natus est.* The high point was a melisma from one of their altos, it just poured out of her, but in that reticent English manner, where she didn't draw attention to herself, it was like a private moment that I happened to notice.
The next piece was a world premiere by Nico Muhly, co-commissioned by the Tallis Scholars (which is celebrating its 45th anniversary) and the Miller Theater (celebrating its 30th anniversary). I heard Muhly's new opera *Marnie* this fall at the Met, and the choral writing in that was the high point, as it was in his previous two operas. So I was especially curious to hear what he would write for Tallis Scholars. The piece he wrote was called *Rough Notes.* Here's how he wrote about it in the program notes: "*Rough Notes,* written for the Tallis Scholars, sets two fragments from Robert Falcon Scott's diaries, made towards the end of his doomed journey to Antarctica." It was a prose text, but very poetic in his imagery.
It blew me away. Very concrete music, with an absolutely sure sense of what it was doing and what it was trying to accomplish. Not afraid to illustrate the text, not afraid to be beautiful, totally grounded in the English choral tradition, written for the virtuosity of these singers and their pinpoint-clear voices. This piece had all of the innate drama that was missing in the three operas.
The first half ended with a "Magnificat" by John Nesbett, a 15th century composer I'd never heard of. It was rather odd in spots, but fascinating. There was one moment where the soprano lines seemed to literally dance.
Either Frank or Linnea said something about the conductor at the intermission, and I realized that I never once noticed him conducting, though he was standing there waving his arms the whole time! Conductors out there, do you agree that this is a very high compliment?
The second half opened with the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus dei from Palestrina's *Missa Hodie Christus natus est.* It was lovely, graceful. The Sanctus was particularly satisfying - - I had the rare pleasure of hearing the music performed in a way where you felt the composer (if revived after 400+ years of being buried) would say, "Yep, that couldn't be done any better, thank you!"
The next piece was a lullaby by William Byrd. With a title like "Lullaby" I expected it to be a darling little jewel, a morsel, a sorbet. But no, it was a full-on complete piece of music. Gorgeous, of course. Here's a recording of them doing it:
They ended with a Magnificat by Praetorius - - austere, transcendent beauty. I didn't write very many notes in the second half because I wanted to just sit there and let it wash over me.