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February 8, 2005

Choral Gems Surviving The Centuries And a Storm

New York Times:

Saturday night's concert by the Vox Vocal Ensemble in the rotunda of the Low Memorial Library at Columbia University had long been sold out. Then came the snowstorm, which prevented about a third of the audience from attending, as well as one singer from the 18-member chorus, who was stuck in Pennsylvania. But George Steel, the ensemble's director, and the rest of his intrepid choristers showed up for a program of sacred choral works by the English Renaissance master Thomas Tallis, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth. Or so we think. The best evidence suggests that Tallis was born in 1505.

Tallis, who mostly provided music for services in royal chapels, lived through the reigns of four British monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I) and had to make stylistic adjustments as theological agendas changed. In Tallis's day as now, his a cappella choral music was hailed for the ingenuity of its contrapuntal writing. Yet Tallis never lets you get distracted by his musical intellect. You are too beguiled by the austere beauty of the calmly intertwining vocal lines and the sonorous richness of his harmonies, impishly tweaked with dissonance.

Mr. Steel, the executive director of the Miller Theater at Columbia, which presented this concert, is best known as an impresario who brings the most cutting of cutting-edge contemporary fare to his theater. But his other passion is Renaissance choral music. That passion came through in his expert and sensitive direction of these admirable choristers. Highlights were the confident account of two sections from the ingenious Mass ''Puer Natus Es Nobis'' and two tenderly lyrical Edwardian anthems in English. The rotunda, with its domed ceiling and reverberant acoustics, was an ideal place to hear Tallis's polyphonic lines mingle and linger. It was somehow a tribute to the power of Tallis and to urban life that when concertgoers who had forgotten the blustery winds and driving snow for a while emerged from the rotunda after the concert, they came upon a gleeful group of students sliding down the library's snow-covered steps on dining-hall lunch trays.

Posted by acapnews at February 8, 2005 12:13 AM