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Tallis Scholars Focus on 16th Century Venice, London

November 06, 1996|TIMOTHY MANGAN

Thanks to frequent visits, numerous recordings and, of course, reliable singing, the Tallis Scholars have developed an avid following in the Southland, as two packed concerts over the weekend attested.

Who would have thought 15 years ago that a concert of early vocal music would be so enthusiastically embraced? And the Tallis Scholars--a 10-member English choir led by Peter Phillips--do it virtually without compromise to a modern sense of "entertainment." Their music--arcane workings of counterpoint and cantus firmus--though often resplendent, can be difficult to decipher. Nor do they mix their programs up in the hopes of keeping audiences distracted.

Both of the Tallis concerts--Saturday at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall and Sunday at the First Congregational Church--were narrowly focused on a time and place: respectively 16th century Venice and St. Mark's Cathedral, and 16th century London's Chapel Royal.

The Venetian program featured pieces by Lassus, Willaert and Andrea Gabrieli, all of whom composed music in the lavish polychoral style that developed at St. Mark's, owing, in part, to its broad-based architecture and two organs in its two apses. This was music history's first love affair with stereo.

By contrast, the English composers of the time--Tallis, Sheppard, Parsons, Taverner, Mundy and Parsley--were generally a more circumspect bunch; English reserve and the need to trace a middle ground amid Anglican and Catholic power struggles made them that way. The text painting was subtler, the counterpoint less florid, the mood more clearly sacred than in the music of their showy Venetian peers.

Through it all, the Scholars sang with their trademark purity and grace, but also with great drive and force. Phillips is an aggressive conductor--in his hands, weaving counterpoints become electric currents and crashing waves. This active, undainty musicianship is a key to the Tallis success, as is their high estimation of their audiences' intelligence.

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