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March 24, 2004

Ann Arbor News

A little more than 30 years have passed since a new British a cappella vocal ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, helped put Renaissance choral music back on the map for music lovers. Countless concerts and recordings later, the 10-voice Tallis Scholars, led by founder Peter Phillips, are still in the forefront of the field, leading the pack by virtue of musicianship and a very special sound.

"Even 30 years ago, I had a very strong vision of the sound I wanted," said Phillips, who arrives in Ann Arbor Thursday for a concert with the Tallis Scholars at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, under University Musical Society auspices. "The sound," Phillips said, speaking by phone from England, "was conditioned by a group or two around in those days and by works we wanted to do. It had nothing to do with authenticity as such. It was the sound I wanted to hear from this music. "We've applied that sound to a vast repertoire, and the singers have got better at it. The process continues."

Phillips, who leads the group with a precise conducting style that produces gorgeous arcs of flowing sound, has no trouble articulating the qualities he seeks, and that the Ann Arbor audience is sure to detect when the group performs its upcoming program of music by Palestrina, Josquin des Pres, John Sheppard and Robert Fayrfax.

"It's bright, agile and endlessly flexible," he said of the sound the group aspires to. "It's very well-tuned and blended and soft and seductive, so it draws people in. It's not abrasive, not harsh, but it's not weak either. There's real tension in it. It's a sort of flat paradox, but it's immensely strong and tough and soft and caressing. And over the years, it's gotten more forthright, so it's hard to remain indifferent to it when it's in front of you. It demands attention. "People are not there for the words, they're there for the sound of the music," he said in a sort of summation. "Because it's abstract music, a lot of it, anyway."

That was precisely what worried the clergy in 1556 when Palestrina wrote his "Missa Papeae Marcelli," which constitutes the first half of the Tallis Scholars' Thursday program. Cardinals at the Council of Trent decreed a simplification of church music, to make the words more comprehensible. But with this piece, Palestrina demonstrated that it was possible to make polyphonic music and make it down to Earth at the same time. "By producing such a great piece of music," Phillips said, "he discouraged the cardinals at the Council of Trent from saying that part music should not be sung in church anymore. It's a more syllabic style than what had gone before, and it's of great historical importance. But our interest in it is that it is a fantastic work."

Posted by acapnews at March 24, 2004 9:30 AM


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