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The Tallis Scholars 40th Anniversary Tour

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by John Andrew (subscribe)
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Iconic, memorable, magical and melodic
Forty one years ago, Peter Phillips "was at a choral concert in 1972 in the antechapel of Magdalen College, Oxford."

The choir was called the Clerkes of Oxenford, whose girls, says Robert Dunnett, sang like boys and .. could turn the treble… lines into fabulous traceries of sound that the sublime Magdalen acoustic transformed into the ethereal. It was a life-changing experience.

"They sang" says Peter Phillips "a big piece by Thomas Tallis, his Gaude Gloriosa, and there was something about the sound that really hit me. It seemed so right for the music, and I decided there and then I was going to remake it myself."

As Ivan Hewitt tells us, in his article in the London "Telegraph" "that 'remaking' entailed the creation from scratch of a specialist choir, of a kind which in those days barely existed (apart from the Clerkes, which had faded away by the Eighties). Singers would have to be found, of a kind willing to be trained in the ways of Renaissance polyphony. The music itself was a problem, too. It wasn't lying to hand in music stores, like Beethoven symphonies. It would have to be tracked down in libraries, edited, and written out in modern notation."

Peter Phillips, then aged 20, gathered round him a choir, which, he said, had to be re-trained. Their sound was wrong. "Too rich, too much vibrato." He decided that each part would have two voices, no more, no less. ''With one voice you hear the individual, which I don't want, and three is cumbersome".

Forty years later the Tallis Scholars have the same authority in their field that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has in theirs. Peter Phillips is a Fellow of Merton College, and still exploring Renaissance music. "I often feel" he says "we've only just begun".

Clearly the audience in the QPAC Concert Hall were only too aware of just how special was the opportunity to hear this choir, judging by their rapturous welcome on stage.

Thomas Tallis was first – Loquebantur variis linguis – and the choir enthralled us from the beginning. Crystal clear diction, seemingly effortless projection, and expressive precision of line. The program notes called it "a joyous musical Babel" and the Tallis Scholars' energy, clarity and precision made it a joy.

Then came the most substantial piece of the evening, Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. This is the work traditionally credited with saving polyphonic music from the draconian Council of Trent, who were considering banning complex music in favour of homophonic or even plainsong settings. A wonderful bass line complemented just two upper voices, soaring above the rest. Unforgettable.

After the interval, The Tallis Scholars had a gentle surprise for us. As they sang the iconic Allegri Miserere the famous top C (a nineteenth century addition) came from singers just below the organ loft, and justified the Observer's comment that hearing the Tallis Scholars is "as near extra-terrestial as you can get sitting in a concert hall".

A modern piece came next. Sainte-Chapelle, an eight-and-a-half-minute work written especially for the group by choral composer Eric Whitacre, was first performed in St Paul's Cathedral on March 7 this year to launch the Tallis Scholars' Anniversary World Tour.

'I was thrilled and honoured when [founder] Peter Phillips approached me with an invitation to write a piece in celebration of 40 years of The Tallis Scholars,' said Whitacre. 'At around the time of the invitation I visited Paris and was captivated by its sheer beauty, and particularly Sainte-Chapelle, the 13th century chapel. Some 6,458 square feet of tall stained glass windows lead relentlessly to an intricate rose window within this mesmerising, Gothic edifice. I turned to my long-time friend, collaborator, poet and historian, Charles Anthony Silvestri to work on the text for the piece, and he crafted the story of an innocent young girl, hearing angels in the stained glass gently singing the Sanctus text.' This was a delightful cameo piece of haunting beauty.

The sudden atmosphere of stillness and meditation that Arvo Pärt's music instantly communicates is one of its most appealing qualities. His Nunc Dimittis beautifully complemented Thomas Tallis' Miserere Nostri, leading in to a triumphant finale – William Byrd's "Tribue, Domine".

The audience rose to their feet, and did not want to let the choir go.

What came next was something of a surprise. Taverner's The Lamb was written thirty-two years ago for his then 3-year old nephew, Simon. It was composed from seven notes in an afternoon, and set to one of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience". Poignant, deceptively simple and joyful, it was a very fitting note on which to say farewell to an evening of musical virtuosity based on a lifetime of scholarship and dedication to polyphonic music.

What a wonderful way to celebrate forty years of achievement.
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Why? Iconic, magical music.
When: 26th October
Phone: 07 3840 7444
Where: QPAC Concert Hall
Cost: $89 - $119
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