Almost half a millenium ago, at the cathedrals of Seville, or Segovia, or Salamanca in Spain, you could have heard choristers singing music in praise or prayer. Sunday night, you could hear that same music at St. James Cathedral here in Seattle. Now, that’s longevity.
The music of Francisco Guerrero and his younger compatriots Sebastian Vivanco and Tomas Luis de Victoria has never gone out of style. Their music, and that of colleagues from other European countries for the next few centuries comprises the huge flowering of magnificent sacred music in the Renaissance, and at any given time, today, some of it is being sung somewhere.
One of the hallmarks of this music is that it sounds at its best sung in cathedrals. Why? Because the acoustics are similar to those in the churches and cathedrals for which it was written. Here in large high spaces the music can bloom and the harmonies merge into a glorious whole.
Of the vocal groups which have focused on fine performances of this sacred music, one of the best regarded is England’s Tallis Scholars. Another, here in Seattle, is The Tudor Choir. Both their names suggest they began with the English Renaissance, but both choirs sing the music of that era from all over.
Three members of The Tallis Scholars with their director, Peter Phillips, are here for their annual Summer School USA, mounted with the active help of The Tudor Choir and its director, Doug Fullington. To open the week, which will concentrate on the music of the Spanish Renaissance, the groups performed together in Sunday night’s concert at St James, a perfect venue acoustically. Phillips and Fullington shared the conducting.
The Magnificats and masses, Ave Marias and anthems of Vivanco, Victoria and Guerrero are stately works, mostly not fast (because the notes would blur in the long reverberation time). Their beauty lies in the long vocal lines, sometimes as many as eight and each melodically interesting on its own, diverging and coming together in harmonies so pure they can create overtones in the air.
Both Tallis and Tudor singers sing without vibrato, so the harmonies ring true, and the voices blend so that none sticks out. Sometimes a solo voice, usually baritone, sang an opening phrase Sunday, then taken up by the choir.
Phillips particularly is a master at conveying the emotions of the music. In Victoria’s “Missa Alma Redemptoris Mater,” for instance, one could clearly hear energy, conviction, joyfulness and trusting peacefulness all within the same serene tempo, subtly done with the dynamics and the shaping of phrases. The same methods brought out the yearning in Guerrero’s “Ave Maria” (with Fullington) and the uplifting joyful noise of Guerrero’s “Regina Caeli” which was vigorous and quite fast for the time,
The concert was short, just an hour without intermission, but I can’t imagine the 16th century choristers sounding any more sublime. In a word, this was a heavenly concert.
During the coming week, The Tallis Scholars and the summer school students will sing Compline daily at the Chapel of St. Ignatius on the campus of Seattle University, plus Mass at St. James on Wednesday, and will finish up the week with a Gala concert on Friday, again at St James, with more music of Guerrero and Victoria. Information at 509-668-2468. Tickets for the concert from www.brownpapertickets.com/event/68781