Tonight felt like a kind of affirmation of permanence in the face of change and disorder in the world.
The Tallis Scholars, conducted by Peter Phillips, joined forces with two University of Toronto ensembles –Schola Cantorum and Theatre of Early Music—conducted by Daniel Taylor. While the repertoire ranged from the renaissance to our own century, we were listening to unaccompanied choral music, using religious texts: Magnificat, Pater noster, Ave Maria and Nunc Dimittis, all in multiple settings.
As a student of the phenomenon of musical signification especially as it applies to religious texts it was a special experience to be able to compare different approaches to the same words, across different periods, the different strategies and styles applied to the same spiritual concept and similar words.
St Paul’s Basilica at Queen & Power was packed with eager listeners, attracted no doubt by Tallis Scholars’ wonderful discography, but also perhaps aware of the new kids in town, Taylor’s two ensembles that shared the program and are now also recording for SONY.
The acoustic plus the visuals are a dream come true for musicians presenting this kind of program. Where a theatre with spoken word must be dry (less than a second reverb) and an opera house aims to have less than 2 seconds of reverberation time (say 1.5), concert halls may be around 2 seconds or more. But this was quite a bit more, perhaps in the vicinity of 4 seconds of reverberation: ideal for a different sort of music that was composed with a reverberant church in mind.
For a few of the pieces we saw the combined forces, as in Praetorius’ Magnificat V to begin or Holst’s Ninc Dimittis to close the program. For most of the evening, though, we were listening to the Tallis Scholars, as many as ten singers, but sometimes fewer.
The thing to remember after listening to this precise sample is how different that sounded in the Basilica space where everything was super live and reverberant. I daresay this is how this music was conceived. While we’re in the midst of Lent, the music was nonetheless full of celebration, even jubilant at times.
Notice too that the singing is very direct and without excess vibrato (as you’d find in styles from later periods). The notes—especially the ones sung way up high—are totally exposed, and requiring nothing less than perfection of intonation.
I shall investigate further: through the magic of recordings.