Chamberfest: Tallis Scholars celebrate the music of the Renaissance

The Tallis Scholars. Photo Nick Rutter

The Tallis Scholars have been instrumental in resurrecting Renaissance music out of the history books and into modern halls since their founding in 1973 by Peter Phillips. Their work has been acknowledged with many awards including entry into Gramophone’s Hall of Fame. They were in Ottawa in 2o15 and dazzled an audience at Notre Dame Cathedral. This weekend, as part of the Chamberfest concert series, they’ll fill the sanctuary at Dominion-Chalmers United Church with the polyphonic sounds of Heinrich Isaac, Josquin des Prez, John Browne and Nicolas Gombert. Before the concert Phillips took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me about the composer Heinrich Isaac.

A. He died in March 1517, reckoned at the time to be the most significant composer in Europe after Josquin des Prez. Heinrich was Flemish, but worked largely in Florence and Vienna for the leading princes of the day. As a court composer he wrote many ceremonial motets and was present at many of the most important summits of the period. Optime divino (wich the Tallis Scolars are singing) is an example, in which he refers to the Medici family. His only professional rival was Josquin, though in fact their music is quite distinct from each other’s.

Q. Tell me a bit about Josquin des Prez and the music by him that you are performing.

A. Josquin also travelled widely in Italy for employment, principally working in Rome for the Papacy, Milan and Ferrara. The motets we are singing on this tour are typical of his intimacy of thought — a kind of chamber music. His Stabat mater is one of the great settings of this common text.

Q. Any other highlights on the programme that might be of particular interest?

A. The English composer John Browne’s Stabat juxta is a fantastic piece of mystical writing, from the leading composer in the Eton Choirbook. It is scored for four tenors and two basses — most unusual and wonderfully sonorous.

Q. Tallis has a reputation for the quality of blend, precision and accuracy that you maintain. How do you achieve that?

A. I achieve it by choosing voices which are likely to go well with each other and then insisting on blend, precision and accuracy. (The perfect Tallis Scholars singer is) someone with a bright, clear sound who is capable of singing both solo and in a small ensemble at very high levels of expertise, sometimes under great pressure. Fluent sight-reading is essential.

Q. Are these the kinds of attributes that any choral singer should emulate?

A. The basic requirement of having a good instrument and wanting to sing sympathetically with other people is available to anyone wanting to do this work. Whether they also have the character to sing solo top C to a thousand people on jetlag may be another matter.

Q. You have led this ensemble since founding it in 1973. Why?

A. I like to perform good music, preferably which other people are not performing. I was lucky in 1973 — Renaissance polyphony came into both categories then. Now everyone is doing it. 

The Tallis Scholars
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.