Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Tallis Scholars - 40 Years of Renaissance Polyphony - 04/05/14

Director & Conductor: Peter Phillips
Josquin Desprez: Praeter rerum seriem
Cipriano de Rore: Missa Praeter rerum seriem
Michael Nyman: Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Procura des mentir
En la muerte de la marquesa de Mancera
John Sheppard: Jesu salvator seculi
John Sheppard: Our Father
Thomas Tallis: If ye love me
Thomas Tallis: Hear the voice and prayer
Thomas Tallis: Salve intemerata

1973 was obviously a fertile year on the music scene, and in many different ways too, as both the Kronos Quartet, which celebrated its 40th anniversary at Carnegie Hall last week, and The Tallis Scholars, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary all season long, including last night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, were created. Not to mention that Pink Floyd's landmark album The Dark Side of the Moon was released that year as well, but I (slightly) digress.
It takes a lot to bring me anywhere close to Times Square on a Saturday night (or any other time, for that matter), but the prospect of hearing some of the biggest hits of Renaissance choral music - and a Miller Theatre-commissioned world première - by internationally acclaimed masters of the genre quickly sealed the deal. It was also coincidentally the 25th anniversary of Miller Theatre at Columbia University, whose laudable mission is to promote new music in New York City by any means possible.
The historic Episcopal Anglo-Catholic church (Whatever that means) looked dwarfed and kind of out of place among the surrounding high buildings, hopping bars, unavoidable chain stores and incidental street works. However, once inside the discreetly gothic space, which boasts features such as eye-popping incense thuribles hanging from the star-adorned, cobalt blue ceiling, it was easy to forget the area's grating hustle and bustle and just focus on the higher purpose of live music.

We started our journey logically with medieval superstar composer Josquin Desprez and his popular Christmas motet "Praeter rerum seriem", whose endlessly complex structure was brilliantly brought out by the remarkably detailed singing of the ensemble. The various vocal effects, including distortions and reverberations, were beautifully rendered and helped emphasize the mystery of the virgin birth.
Taking inspiration from that same motet, the other major Franco-Flemish composer of those days, Cipriano de Rore, developed it into his mesmerizing "Mass praeter rerum seriem". While it can be convincingly argued that the basics were already there in Josquin's motet, and therefore de Rore did not do much but play around with them, his knack for reinvention resulted in something seemingly new, refreshingly different and immediately appealing. the Agnus Dei, in particular, somberly concluded the piece on a immaculately pure and far-reaching note.
Associating German baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach with Mexican baroque poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz may not spontaneously spring to the minds of a lot of composers, but that's what Michael Nyman ended up doing upon the suggestion of his friend, the Mexican artist Lorena Camarena Osorno. Tweaking some of Bach's preludes to adapt them to Sor Juana's sonnets while taking advantage of the sing-songy quality of the Spanish language, Nyman created two downright attractive works that The Tallis Scholars made brightly shine.
Back to the Middle Ages and the solemnity of the Latin language, but in the context of the English Reformation this time, we moved on to two works by John Sheppard. "Jesu salvator seculi" and "Our father" distinguished themselves by their fundamental minimalism, subtle colors and spiritual dimensions.
A concert of Renaissance music naturally cannot be completed without Thomas Tallis, who enjoyed a long and productive career in 16th century England and is still considered one of the country's most prominent composers. And for sure, the two unfussy nuggets that are "If ye love me" and "Hear the voice and prayer" were absolutely lovely in their straightforward simplicity.
We could not hope for a more fitting program conclusion than his earlier votive antiphon "Salve intemerata". Written when Tallis was in his twenties, this motet to the Virgin Mary is a substantial and magnificent treat in terms of technical bravura and musical pleasure, incidentally representing the end of the genre in all its splendor. Blessed with an intricate, perfectly thought-out architecture that includes endlessly long lines and a challengingly wide vocal range, "Salve intemerata" remains one of the pinnacles of medieval English music. In the hands of a choir and a conductor firmly dedicated to Renaissance polyphony, it received the flawlessly grand performance it so deserves.

The sold-out audience refusing to leave, the artists came back for a harmoniously soothing, high flying "Blue Bird" by Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, one last moment of pure musical bliss before heading back to the outside world and its cold, crowded and loud reality.

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