Tallis Scholars rock at Rockefeller Chapel

The Tallis Scholars (Photo by Nick Rutter)

Classical Music Critic

The University of Chicago Presents 75th season has been a star-studded affair thus far, with some of the greatest musicians to have appeared on the series over the years making return engagements this season. Lightning struck again on Sunday afternoon at Rockefeller Chapel in the Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series. Over 750 people made their way into the University of Chicago’s tallest Hyde Park building to hear the Tallis Scholars.

Founded by Peter Phillips over 45 years ago while he was an organ scholar at St. John’s College, Oxford, the Tallis Scholars have risen to the height of early music performance achievement. They have made several world tours and have sung sacred polyphonic a cappella renaissance music at some of the most iconic religious venues, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The group is named after Thomas Tallis, the great English composer of the Tudor era. But the Tallis Scholars champion a wide range of composers, including Palestrina, Byrd, Lassus, Josquin, de Victoria, and Tye. They have performed the Russian Orthodox music of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. Even some contemporary composers have made their way onto Tallis Scholars programs, including Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre, and Ivan Moody. They have sung the early music of John Taverner and the contemporary music of John Tavener.

Although bundled up in bulky outerwear, the audience was warm and receptive, clearly excited even before the concert began. The program was entitled “A Renaissance Christmas,” and featured sacred music, but also managed to sneak in some charming period Christmas carols.

The main composer for the afternoon was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, with “Hodie Christus natus est” being first on the program for the ten singers (six women and four men) led by conductor Phillips. They immediately filled Rockefeller Chapel with their widely renown, pitch-perfect, bell-like tones. For this work, and some others on the program, the group created two side-by-side semi-choirs who created remarkably robust and powerful sound given their small number.

The Kyrie and Gloria of Palestrina’s “Missa Hodie Christus natus est” opened with delicate, stately lines which were expertly phrased. One of the many striking things about this ensemble is how transparently they sing the polyphonic music, with each part clear and distinct. Phillips never pushed his performers to extremes, with the excitement coming directly from the music itself, often performed with lacey quietness.

The Gloria featured soft supplication and as the music developed, the intensity and complexity grew. The sopranos were gleaming, all the while exercising good control and never upsetting the remarkable balance of the choir.

The singers, who performed in a long, semi-circular configuration, re-arranged themselves for William Byrd’s “Magnificat,” sung in English. The sound was earnest and urgent with hot build-ups to fortissimos, then cooling down to hushed pianissimos. There was beautiful line shaping and the runs leading up to the “Amen” signaled a pleasing conclusion.

John Nesbit’s Magnificat began with a soft solo before giving way to full sound from the entire group. The music included sections with only subgroups of the singers, some surprising (two sopranos and a bass, for example), but all rewarding.

After the intermission the Tallis Scholars returned to Palestrina’s “Missa Hodie Christus natus est,” this time with the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus dei. The first was spacious in sound and pacing, as well as thoughtfully rendered. The fervor was inward looking and restrained. The long musical lines of the Sanctus bloomed perfectly. The Agnus dei radiated excitement.

A lullaby by Byrd featured half of the ensemble. It was gentle and caressing, even with its rather frightening text (including “Be still my blessed babe, though cause thou has to mourn: whose blood most innocent to shed, the cruel king hath sworn…”). The music was pretty as was the performance.

The final work was the Magnificat V by Hieronymus Praetorius. The program notes explain that in Renaissance Lutheran Germany it was a custom to mix Christmas carols (some in German) with the Magnificat (in Latin) on Christmas Day. The Tallis Scholars followed this tradition and the results were splendid. The carols had lightness and lilt while the sacred music had both gravitas and joy. The dozen-some different sections had clearly delineated moods and rhythms, offering delightful variety while maintaining cohesion.

The end of the concert found many listeners on their feet with loud applause. This was hardly surprising as the Tallis Scholars had offered an expertly sung performance imbued with inner strength, outer conviction, and sound which shimmered like sparkling stars on a clear Christmas night.

The next concert presented by UCP will be in the new year. For program details and ticket information, visit the website: chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.