It seems that the quiet, contemplative world of a cappella song has lodged itself squarely at the glowing heart of this year's White Light Festival, which continues this week at Lincoln Center. Joining Janet Cardiff's 40 Part Motet and the Collegium Vocale Gent, this past Sunday offered Britain's Tallis Scholars at Alice Tully Hall, just as dusk fell on the first day of Standard Time.
Formed in 1973 by their director, Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars are regarded as the world's leading exponents of Renaissance music, written some 400 years ago for the great churches of Paris, London and, of course, Rome. And, judging from the enthusiastic, sold-out crowd at Alice Tully, their reputation certainly precedes them.
Sunday's program was filled with the staples on which this ensemble has staked its reputation: Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Praetorius, all sung with astonishing diction and precision. One major highlight came at the close of the first half, when they performed Allegri's Miserere, combining an onstage SSATB choir, an offstage SSAB group, and a tenor stationed in the balcony. It may have lacked the same emotional swell I've come to expect from years of attending the office of Tenebrae, but I can only imagine what those in the audience must have felt experiencing this miracle for the first time.
Interspersed between these ancient masterworks was the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: an extraordinary endorsement for someone who just celebrated his 75th birthday. Pärt's haunting music inhabits the same general soundscape as his predecessors while being thoroughly contemporary: it rises organically as if from the ether, filled with these extraordinary dissonances at the end of certain phrases. It was startling and soothing, all at once.
One of the most remarkable things about the concert was that, with the exception of Pärt's Seven Magnificat-Antiphons, all the pieces on the program employed the same three texts: Miserere, Nunc dimittis, and Magnificat. The latter - the prayer Mary says upon learning she is with child - must have held a special resonance with this well-heeled audience:
He has shown strength with his arm
He has scattered the proud in their conceit
He has put down the mighty from their seat
And has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent empty away.
Throughout the concert, the audience sat incredibly still - many with eyes closed, collectively holding their breath. Yet, when Phillips finally dropped his hands after the final Magnificat, everyone rose to their feet, ecstatically applauding. I couldn't help but be amazed to see people respond this way to such quiet music. (Phillips rewarded us with an encore of Palestrina's Nunc dimittis, asking us to imagine we were in the Sistine Chapel, "with choirs all around.")
At the post-concert reception, I met up with Jane, who remarked how this music has traveled across the centuries to speak to us now. "I've come to realize that these pieces are like pulsars or supernovas: events which happened millions of years ago, but whose light is only reaching us today. And, their light has only brightened over time."
More pics on Flickr.