William Dart: Choir offers the spectacular

By William Dart

The Tallis Scholars.
The Tallis Scholars.

Few serve up finer Renaissance fare than the Tallis Scholars, the British chamber choir visiting Auckland next week as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations.

Conductor Peter Phillips is the quintessential English gentleman and scholar. He takes time to relish the weight of words judiciously chosen, peppering his conversation about the music of five centuries ago with the occasional surprisingly chatty phrase. He admits to being "bitten by the Renaissance bug" in his mid-teens, singing tenor in a madrigal by Tudor composer Orlando Gibbons.

"Being inside an eight-part texture was what got me going," he says. "I couldn't believe how exciting it was."

Studies at Oxford University led to his becoming an internationally respected scholar in this field, an asset as a conductor. "The singers like to work with someone who's also a practising musician but they respect the sort of authority that stops them from going ragged."

He is amused when I suggest it must have taken courage to set up the Tallis Scholars in 1973. "If you don't know what you're taking on then you can't claim courage - as they often say about war heroes. It took at least 15 years to make any sort of money from it," he says, now content with a choir that has "the sound of an organ that's well tuned".

He has yet to experience his New Zealand venues but is curious about Christchurch's Cardboard Cathedral. "Nobody here has much idea of what it will be like," he says. "I can't wait and I'm sure it's going to be thrilling."

Perhaps Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral next Wednesday will fit in with his idea of the ideal place to sing - "with rounded acoustics that relax us so we don't have to try too hard to get a group sound". The other essential is clarity, "so we can hear each other and react to what the others are doing".

Aucklanders will hear Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Josquin and Allegri next week in a selection he describes as a programme of favourites, with Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli rated as a classic.

To Phillips, it has the perfection of Mozart. "You can hear everything as the writing is so clear. If you can sing Palestrina, blended and in tune, then you can apply this to all the composers of that period and also the music of today."

He is pleased Arvo Part's Magnificat is in the line-up. The Estonian composer fits well with his brothers of four centuries ago because "like the Renaissance composers, he expresses deep things with reduced means".

The highlight of the Holy Trinity concert must be Spem in Alium by 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis. Calling for 40 separate vocal lines, this choral spectacular will entail the singers being joined by local choristers.

"It's one of the most advanced creations of the human mind. It has hardly any rivals, even in the music of Bach, and no one knows how he did it or wrote it down in those days, without a computer."

With rehearsal time approaching, I can't resist asking him about his shared love of cricket and music, echoing that of the noted English critic, Neville Cardus.

"It's quite a musical game, really. The way it plays itself out, the slowness of it, and then the sudden fastness.

"There are lots of long passages in which nothing seems to be happening, which is also the case with Renaissance music, but you're there for the whole story of the piece."

Performance

What: The Tallis Scholars
Where and when: Holy Trinity
Cathedral, Parnell, Wednesday at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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