AST WEEK, I had the opportunity and privilege to sing in a concert with the Tallis Vocalis under the direction of Peter Philips, the founder and director of The Tallis Scholars. Being able to work with Peter was really “a dream come true” for me and many of my colleagues. Peter and The Tallis Scholars have inspired so many musicians in the past forty years and they have successfully reintroduce the Renaissance polyphony to the world. I founded my first choir (a small liturgical choir) in college after listening to Peter’s choir, and realizing how one can produce this powerful and beautiful sound even with a small chamber choir. Since then, I have started similar groups in Atlanta, Macau, and now in Hong Kong.
One of the things that impressed me the most over the week was Peter’s extraordinary memory. After so many years of conducting polyphony, it is not surprising that he knows the music very well from his memory and can pick on the details without looking at the scores. What impressed me the most was that he had all the singers’ names memorized in a short period of time. He met half of the choir at dinner on the night he landed in Hong Kong and we each did a brief introduction of ourselves at the table. On the second evening, we had our first rehearsal and he was able to greet us with our names, the singers he met on the previous evening; he met the rest of the choir there (26 of us all together). By the second rehearsal, he knew exactly, by names, who were missing or late to the rehearsal. I think this is a very useful skill for conductors. It allows us to engage our singers and to maintain a friendly relationships. As a singer, I felt my importance in the group as I was treated with respect by the leader.
On the musical aspects, Peter is a very disciplined musician. He takes a pretty straight approach on the tempo and rhythm of the pieces. Instead of the more romantic approach, he asked the choir not to make long pauses after cadences and not to rit too early at the end of a piece. For example, in Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus“, he preferred the altos and tenors to pick up right away the “miserere mei” phrase without pausing after the cadence of “O Jesu Fili Mariae”; there was also no ritardando until the second-to-the-last measure, which is when everyone sing “-men” of the “Amen”.
Regarding singing with vibrato in Renaissance pieces, he doesn’t think that polyphonies have to be sung with absolute straight tone. He says that vibrato is a natural thing and it helps the singers to express the melodies and texts more fully. However, he did point out that it can be overdone, especially in the top voice, and consequently can affect the tuning.
Here is a video of Peter Philips talking about Renaissance music:
Last week was a very fruitful week! I am blessed to be able to work with Peter and to learn from him. If you are interested to know more about Peter Philips and The Tallis Scholars, you can read his book, or watch this video on Youtube where he talks about the origins of his choir.