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Volume 34
Issue 49
 
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The Tallis Scholars create sonic magic at Town Hall
The Tallis Scholars create sonic magic at Town Hall
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

When my partner Dale and I visited the Sistine Chapel a couple years ago, it was packed with noisy tourists and shouting tour guides. Hardly a place for spiritual contemplation!

Town Hall in Seattle provided much better ambience last Sunday evening as The Tallis Scholars shook our senses with powerful, yet sophisticated sounds that I'm sure were spiritual for some in attendance. Indeed, the program Sunday was entitled 'Music from the Sistine Chapel,' and featured works written for the Holy See during the Renaissance. The ten singers presented works from only three composers: Allegri, Soriano, and five works by Palestrina.

One might think that such a limited palette - ten unaccompanied voices, nothing but early religious music - would make for a boring evening. Think again! From a purely sonic perspective, the absolute precision and purity of tone, combined with the harmonies of this music, made for a magic combination and continued fascination. Although I would have preferred to listen to this program in the acoustics of a cathedral, the relatively "dry" acoustics of a packed Town Hall allowed us to hear with added clarity every detail of every vocal line.

Those details were exciting. For instance, the singers used straight-toned singing (no vibrato) to make super-clear the transitions from note to note, but for sustained notes they allowed subtle vibrato to add color to their voices. Their movement between notes were, in fact, so precise that I was constantly reminded of a small baroque organ, whose every note is clarified by a slight percussive "chiff" at the beginning of each sound. At one point my partner mentioned that the close harmony between two of the women blended to sound amazingly like a German krumhorn! Another effect of the clarity of pitches was an intensity of sound that made it all seem surprisingly loud. Indeed, the singers all had powerful voices that were nonetheless under supreme control.

The most extreme example of that control appeared during the dramatic "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri. One of the sopranos, Debra Roberts, was clearly suffering from a chest cold, yet she managed to sing all six or so of the high C's with incredible power and clarity. During this piece, the singers were split, with five on stage, one at the back of the hall, and five others (including Ms. Roberts) in the rear left stairwell leading down to the lobby. Again, this would have worked even better in a cathedral, but the effect here was stunning nonetheless. The Allegri is The Tallis Scholars' "hit record" (on the Gimell label), and I never tire of hearing it.

The Saturday program (which I missed while covering snowy Vancouver Opera's 'Macbeth') got off to a rough start because their plane was five hours late. The singers had to begin their program an hour late, and start singing without having a chance to gauge their sound in this hall. Whatever the circumstances, I eagerly await the next appearance in Seattle of The Tallis Scholars.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu. 519 words, photo to follow

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