When does it start to feel like it’s the Holidays? For some, it’s the windows on Fifth Avenue, or the Thanksgiving Day Parade. For devotees of Early Music, it’s absolutely the visit of the Tallis Scholars to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, just a stone’s throw from Times Square. It’s hard to imagine, but a few steps takes you hundreds of years back in time on this magic night and this year, their program, “A Renaissance Christmas,” included a special debut of a piece commissioned by the Tallis Scholars by contemporary composer Nico Muhly!
If you’ve never been to Smoky Mary’s, as the Church is known by many, you’re in for a treat. The traditional floorplan includes a chapel to one side, a tomb effigy, and the most glorious vaulted ceilings that are beautiful dark blue with stars. The altar is flanked by statues of Jesus and Mary and the acoustics are magnificent. When you have the a cappella voices with nothing but pure tone, the feeling is truly heavenly. The blend is sublime.
And the program? Rich in the work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the evening began with “Hodie Christus natus est” (Today, Christ is born), in which we are treated to the grand open harmonies that evoke the breadth of faith with the organ-like tones of these a cappella voices. And following closely was “Hodie Christus natus est” “Kyrie” and “Gloria” which are the first two parts of the Ordinary Mass. Palestrina painted with music, and there is a lot of effort in the double choir–one centered in high voices, the other in low voices. He created a parody mass, a sacred work based on material in his motet that was expanded using the same double choir–essentially treating the original in an almost symphonic way using the parts of the Mass to further develop his initial musical thoughts. The “Kyrie” (Lord, have mercy on us) and the “Gloria” (Glory Be to God) are the first parts to be explored and the high voices evoke a Cornetto, or perhaps a Shawm or Hautboys, from which the modern oboe has come: beautifully pure with no vibrato, truly to the Glory of the Creator.
Based on two portions of Robert Falcon Scott’s diaries from his ill-fated, and ultimately fatal, Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica, “Rough Notes” brings our time travel back to the 20th century, with Nico Muhly’s World Premiere of this Miller Theatre Commission for Tallis Scholars. We hear the crystalline shimmer of the aurora australis, in the canopy of the long, long night, in the clear open harmonies that Muhly has written. While adhering to the traditions of the Early Music masters, the occasional modern harmony tiptoes in, with the dissonance that our hearts know means there is a human tragedy in the offing. The cosmos look down, not in disinterest, but rather with their arc of life and ours being so different that we are creatures of a day to them. Haunting and beautiful, it is the piece that I am still thinking about long after the concert.
Palestrina, Nesbett, Byrd, Praetorius, and other Early Music composers were perhaps foretelling the advent of Buddhism in the West, with beauty at its most essential in their work. Muhly carries forward this tradition that would be a great model for the modern world.
The final piece in the first act was John Nesbett’s “Magnficat”–the oldest piece in the program, tonal and rolling, like a boat ride, falling and rising, with voices weaving together and mirroring one another in glorious ribbons of song.
The second act brought the return of Palestrina’s “Missa Hodie Christus natus est,” specifically the “Credo,” “Sanctus,” and “Agnus Dei.” The grace of the vocally instrumental feel was delicious, with cascading melismatic lushness lending a sense of softly falling snow, catching moonlight on its descent. The richly figured open harmony of the “Hosanna” seemed like travel music, for dashing through that snow, as it exults. The “Agnus Dei” is solemnly atmospheric and seemed to me to foretell the tragedy to come in Jesus death even as his birth is a celebration.
William Byrd’s “Lullaby” distilled the ensemble down to just five voices–three women and two men. Achingly gorgeous highs ascended to the golden stars in the blue ceiling, yet the phrasing and dynamics made this a very intimate experience. The tension and resolution is restive and restful at the same time, and remember, they couldn’t put a baby in a car seat back then and drive them around to lull them.
The final piece of the evening was Hieronymous Praetorius’ “Magnificat V,” with choral interpolations of “Joseph lieber,” “Joseph mein,” and “In dulci jubilo.” Imagine when people visited one another and sang as their entertainment. While some could participate in reading the notation, others who were familiar with the more popular music could join in the interpolated carols. This was a beautiful way to send us into the night, with tendrils of Holiday spirit clinging to us, much as the smoke of incense would linger after a service.
When you turn on the radio and hear very impressive vocal runs, this pure tone thrills with its very lack of ornamentation. It is evocative and broad, relying on the star power of the ensemble, as they listen so closely to one another that, from attack to sustain to final note, all are as one. And at this season where so many are focused on Light and Love, we would do better by doing more listening as we join together as one.
for tickets! Get a taste now, there’s still a lot of season to come!