Medieval Choral Group Kicks off This Semester’s Artist Recital Series

Julia Hubay, Staff Writer

On the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 15, the Oberlin community enjoyed the vocal talents of the Tallis Scholars in Finney Chapel as part of the Artist Recital Series.

Since their founding by Director Peter Phillips in 1973, the Tallis Scholars have been performing Renaissance choral music to critical acclaim for nearly 40 years. Phillips, who studied Renaissance music at Oxford, has made Renaissance polyphony the focus of his career. The Tallis Scholars have spread their passion for polyphonic Renaissance choral music by traveling all over the world, performing in venues as prestigious as the Royal Albert Hall and the Sistine Chapel.

Twelve vocalists and their director strode onstage in Finney Chapel without pretense or introduction. In spite of their world wide fame, the Tallis Scholars seemed more passionate about sharing their beautiful music than receiving personal recognition.

Diving right into the first piece, “Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday” by Carlo Gesualdo, the singers cast a spell over the audience with the strong, pure sound of their voices. The rich tones of the bass and tenor parts built a noble foundation for the alto and soprano voices to soar above.

Divided into segments, Tenebrae comprised the entire first half of the concert. Sung in Latin, the piece recreated the sacred mood of majestic European cathedrals. But the sound also evoked a more secular, natural metaphor; the dynamic and tempo changes were reminiscent of a lively stream, rushing jauntily over rocks, then pooling and moving more gently. In other parts of Tenebrae, the grandeur of the music invited the listener to imagine scenes of vast natural beauty.

After the piece, the vocalists and director humbly bowed and smiled, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause of a nearly full Finney Chapel. A brief intermission followed, and then the singers, dressed all in black and vaguely resembling priests, returned to the stage to further delight the audience.

The second half of the concert included a large selection of much shorter pieces, sung variously by smaller groups of singers from the choir. Tenor Patrick Craig, however, acted as the pitch pipe for the singers at the beginning of each piece. The perfect pitch and the super-human clarity of his voice were truly astounding.

Many of the works performed had a Christian message, yet a few referred to classical religion and mythology. “Musae Jovis,” by Benedictus Appenzeller, addressed the mythological Muses, and the sound produced by the piece had a more earthly quality than the others, which seemed more grand and angelic. “Mirabile Mysterium,” by Jacobus Gallus, was one of the few pieces with a less-than-jubilant sound. The song began with a hesitant, lonely tone, which became more and more hauntingly beautiful as the piece progressed. Although dark undertones were present throughout, the work ended on a hopeful note.

In nearly every piece, the style of singing involved slow repetition of the words, almost in a round, extending each line of the Latin lyrics to several minutes. The difference in the motion of the voices created complex textures, in which each voice was individually distinguishable. Yet, together the voices created a more valuable whole. Listening to the motion of each individual voice was like watching a delicate glass mobile twist in golden sunlight, every moment a unique frame of beauty, sometimes blinding, and always enchanting.

When the final note of the last scheduled piece hung in the air like a glistening soap-bubble, the audience waited a prolonged second before breaking the spell with raucous applause. The Tallis Scholars took a simple bow, graciously smiling at the appreciative crowd. After exiting the stage, the rumble of the audience stomping on the floorboards inspired an encore.

Director Phillips spoke to the audience for the first time and explained that the finale was in the Baroque, rather than the Renaissance, style of choral music. Listening to the two styles side by side, the audience was able to discern the nuanced differences between them. One difference was the more responsive, sequential pattern of the Baroque: First one voice would ring out, then another — not all were simultaneous.

Having been treated to the warmth of both the manner and voices of the Tallis Scholars, the audience returned to the cold outside insulated by the beauty of the evening.