Tallis Scholars

Tallis Scholars review: Enlightening and enthralling

Still going strong after 44 years, acclaimed English vocal ensemble lives up to its name and reputation

by TERRY ROSS

Since their inception 44 years ago, The Tallis Scholars have led the way in performing choral music of the Renaissance. Under founder and director Peter Phillips, the English ensemble has made almost a hundred recordings of the great composers of the 15th and 16th centuries, won every possible award for quality and generated a wagonload of ecstatic reviews. So let me join the crowd by acclaiming their most recent Portland concert on April 4 (their sixth, always in St. Mary’s Cathedral) as superbly sung, brilliantly interpreted, and carefully programmed.

Heard in person, their sound, always impeccable on recordings, takes on added luster and range of volume. It’s always a fresh thrill to hear these ten singers rise from a whisper to a fortissimo; it’s a big sound, made possible by fine voices but especially by the cohesion of the singers, who are absolutely in synch with one another and therefore project a united sonic product that twice or six times as many singers in a less “together” choir would not be able to muster.

The Tallis Scholars’ latest Portland appearance nearly sold out St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Cappella Romana.

Over their decades, the Mr. Phillips and his Scholars have educated their public in their chosen field of music, otherwise intimately known only to organists and choristers in England and select parishes in America. In doing so they have created a small army of amateur musicologists familiar with a fair sampling of the big names in Renaissance choral music, including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594), whose music appears on at least a dozen of the Scholars’s recordings, and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), on half a dozen. In this Portland concert presented by Cappella Romana, Palestrina was represented by a Pater noster and Gibbons by a Magnificat and a Nunc dimittis.

Also present for the musicologists’ delectation were the less familiar: Hieronymus Praetorius, John Sheppard, Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jakob Handl), Jean Mouton, Johannes Eccard, and Andres de Torrentes. Not a few of the Scholars’s audience attend with learning as much on their minds as appreciating fine singing, and such ancillary figures are crucial. The nearly sold-out cathedral at St. Mary’s was full of local singers, conductors, music educators, and other aficionados.

In Metamorphosis, the Scholars repeated a program they had done a number of times in England. Built around four essential texts of Christianity — Magnificat, Pater noster (Our Father), Ave Maria, and Nunc dimittis — done variously in Latin, English, Russian Church Slavonic, and German, the concert featured eight selections in the first half (Magnificats and Pater nosters) and nine in the second (Ave Marias and Nunc dimittises). A special treat was the presence on the program of 20th-century composers Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Igor Stravinsky (1881-1971), Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), and John Tavener (1944-2013).

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Portland Gay Men's Chorus sings gay holiday songs this weekend at Portland's Newmark Theater

It’s finals week, for those of us involved in academia, but there’s more going on on campus than just exams.  Although perhaps not as operatic as the antics of university sports teams and presidential firings, and certainly not as polished as their professional counterpoints, Oregon university classical concerts sometimes take on fresher material than sometimes stodgy institutions that rely on ticket sales and subscriptions, and they often bubble with the kind of enthusiasm that 20-somethings — both in the audience and onstage — bring to rock shows and Autzen stadium.

College performances are also usually considerably more informal and affordable than the usual classical ticket. (And yes, many publications impose a de facto ban on covering student productions, although happily not so much in Oregon.)

This is especially true in Eugene, where the University of Oregon School of Music and Danceboasts some of the most accomplished students and creative faculty in the West. Although the city hosts some excellent classical performers, for listeners seeking musical adventure, UO concerts at Beall Concert Hall and elsewhere — whether played by its top-notch faculty like the Oregon String Quartet, by touring ensembles in its chamber music and world music and other presenting series, or by student groups — are usually the top choice on any given day.

Now, as you’ll see below, the UO has birthed an important new ensemble that debuts this weekend. Portland, too, boasts fine faculty performing groups like Lewis & Clark College’s Friends of Rain and Portland State University’s Florestan Trio, and PSU in particular regularly contributes immensely to the community by hosting performances of other Oregon and touring musicians.

Friends of Chamber Music brings the Takacs Quartet to Portland Monday and Tuesday. Photo credit: Ellen Appel.

“The Schumann songs are a bit gloomy — well, they’re very gloomy! — but I wanted to do that. When you think of these 19th-century composers, a lot of them dealt with depression, and some of their best work came out of depressing periods. It’s just amazing stuff. So I went there with the Schumann.”

Singer Eric Owens, in San Francisco Classical Voice.

I realize the days are nearing their shortest of the year — but did vocal recitalist Eric Owens have to remind us of that fact by bringing Oregon one of the darkest song programs in recent memory? For the morose first half of his Friends of Chamber Music recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last week, the powerful bass baritone, ably accompanied by last- minute replacement pianist Jay Rozendaal from Seattle Opera and Western Washington University, chose somber repertoire  — as dark and heavy as a German winter beer — by Schubert, the above mentioned Schumann and Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. Owens’ glowering voice captured the desolate, angst-ridden emotional landscape of settings of poems by Goethe and others as clearly and effectively as he’s done in his famous opera roles.

So effectively, in fact, that I wasn’t sure how many listeners would return for the second set, but those who managed to avoid suicide at intermission returned to a gradually lightening songscape of French repertoire, especially after the three Henri Duparc songs gave way to Maurice Ravel’s evocative Don Quixote music, whose closing “Drinking Song” finally drew some much needed laughter. You know it’s a bleak night when Wagner (the rousing Two Grenadiers) lightens the mood.

I have to admit that I’d hoped for some of the contemporary repertoire that Owens has earned plaudits for, but as he told SFCV, “I’m a person who sings a lot of new music, so I wanted to make an effort to sing 19th- and early-20th-century music, and to represent the two languages that are most associated with recital — that’s German and French,” both with the accent on despair.

Fortunately, Owens’ two encores (which the enthusiastic audience demanded — obviously not all of them were as bummed out as I was) finally let the light in. Owens called Henry Purcell’s tender “Music for a While” particularly close to his heart, and it sure sounded that way. And his lovingly rendered closing spiritual — “my answer to the Schumann set,” he said — “Shall We Gather at the River” washed the gloom away.

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