Tallis Scholars (at Alice Tully Hall)

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Tallis Scholars
The Tallis Scholars
—a British vocal ensemble specializing in Renaissance sacred works— are currently touring in the U.S.A. and performed in New York City recently (November 16th), presenting a program of music titled “Transcending Time.” Me and Mrs. C. were fortunate enough to attend and they offered an evening of transfixing music. I don’t count myself well qualified to review this form of music—popular music in the broadest sense is what I love most and comprehend best—but I wanted at least to write down a few appreciative comments, if only for my own edification.

The series of sacred pieces which the Tallis Scholars (in total 12 voices under the direction of Peter Phillips) performed at this concert were presented loosely in the order of a Christian liturgy, although we were not hearing any single composer’s “mass” but works from a variety of composers. Preeminent were pieces by the 16th-century English composer John Taverner: his Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. It was all pretty sublime, but I have to say that what stayed with me most after the show happened to be the more modern pieces.

“Recordare, Domine (Remember, O Lord)” by Nico Muhly is his setting of Lamentations 5:1-5, and it was deeply powerful and haunting. And the musical setting composed by Arvo Pärt of Luke 3:23-38 was genuinely revelatory. Its title is “… which was the son of …” because these are the verses where Luke lays out a biblical genealogy of Jesus, all the way back to Adam. It’s not exactly an obvious passage to read for devotional purposes, being a little bit like reading an ancient Hebrew telephone book. And I never gave it any serious thought. Yet, sung in this amazing choral arrangement, the names acquired a poetic and incantatory power, with a penultimate climax at Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, and a genuinely stirring finish at “… which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

After the regular program was finished, Peter Phillips talked about the recent death of John Tavener (not to be confused with the aforementioned Taverner), a modern English composer of sacred music. He passed away on November 12th at the age of 69. The Tallis Scholars then performed Tavener’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer.

The Tallis Scholars continue their tour (December 4th in San Francisco, December 6th through 8th in Pittsburgh) and so we’d certainly recommend seeing them if they are showing up at a gin joint near you.

I had heard about John Tavener’s death before going to the concert, but truth be told I was not aware of his music at all before hearing it sung there. It prompted me to look for some more of it. One piece that has been mentioned again and again in tributes to him is “The Lamb,” which is his musical setting of the poem by William Blake. I already loved the poem: it’s such an exquisitely simple and beautiful meditation on God’s creation, and on God, and on the special mystery of Christ. I think it can be pretty devastating to just read it out loud (especially if you should happen to have a lamb nearby).

Listening to Tavener’s setting (embedded below via YouTube) it at first sounded quite austere to me, as this genre of music is wont to do. But then at the lines, “Gave thee such a tender voice / Making all the vales rejoice” this old heart just gave out, in the best possible sense, and it’s now become a treasured piece of music.

The Lamb

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb:
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by his name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!

-William Blake


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