In the end, Tallis Scholars rock the Renaissance at Gaston Hall concert

By Tom Huizenga
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 5:46 PM

Merry old England was the geographical nexus of the Renaissance Christmas concerts, performed by the Folger Consort with the Tallis Scholars over the weekend at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall.

Old, certainly, but merry? Not exactly. Much of the music presented - especially selections sung by the revered Tallis Scholars - was strikingly sober, perhaps indicative of Advent, typically a time of contemplation in the weeks before Christmas.

A wide range of vaguely seasonal music was on display. Complex, a cappella tapestries by the likes of John Taverner mingled with rustic, instrumental dances.

Chalk it up to jetlag, or the deadened acoustics of a packed hall, but the Tallis Scholars' characteristically precise sound faltered in the first half of Friday night's concert. The group has always prided itself on a bright, soprano-heavy top end, but in Taverner's multi-part "Gaude plurimum," the sopranos overpowered their colleagues, upsetting the delicate balance.

Fortunately, much of the Tallis Scholars' signature transparent but tight blend reappeared after intermission. In William Byrd's "Nunc dimittis," voice parts dovetailed seamlessly as one melodic line folded into the next.

The pious tone of antiphons and church anthems was lightened by the Consort's instrumental selections. The jaunty "Mulliner Book Dances" and "Hugh Ashton's Maske" offered fluid playing by Mary Springfels on the smallest member of the viol family and Tom Zajac's eccentric arsenal of recorders and bagpipe.

The two ensembles joined forces for six pieces, the best of which capped the evening with two settings of "Hosanna to the Son of David" - one by Orlando Gibbons; the other, Thomas Weelkes. By this time, the Tallis singers were near top form, with basses soaring to open the Weelkes. The concluding, ecstatic full cries of "hosanna in excelsis Deo" virtually rocked the house.

While introducing a William Billings encore, director Peter Phillips (founder of the Tallis Scholars in 1973) mentioned it was exactly 25 years ago that his group last played with the Consort. Let's hope another reunion doesn't take that long.

Huizenga is a freelance writer.

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