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Swirling aura: the Tallis Scholars.

Perfect Flow

By Paul Rapp

The Tallis Scholars

Tanglewood Music Center, Ozawa Hall, Lenox, Mass., Aug. 17

It was probably 10 years ago when I heard the late Karl Haas, host of the Adventures in Good Music radio show, play the Tallis Scholars’ recording of Thomas Tallis’ (1510-1585) Spem In Alium. It put me into a deep trance. You can have every Euro-trash DJ in Mykonos; a 10-voice British a cappella ensemble singing dense 450-year-old church music was making me seriously crazy. I promised myself that if they ever came hereabouts I’d be there.

The Tallis Scholars hit Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall last week and played to a packed house and lawn, and caused the same sort of delirium I’d experienced at my desk 10 years ago. Interestingly (or not), the group played nothing composed by its namesake, but rather stuff by mostly German composers from the same time period, working in the same sonic territory. The point, apparently, was that many of the pieces had been heard by a very young Mozart (this being, of course, the big Mozart 250th birthday summer), and strongly influenced the young genius. Indeed, this music does provide a bridge between the starkness of the Gregorian chant, and the richness of Renaissance-era orchestral music.

The slow-moving, constantly shifting music is some of the most ethereal, even trippy, music ever devised. As predictable as the blues, the pieces were the aural equivalent of watching waves from a sea shore, the music would ebb, flow, cross, repeat, and inexorably wind up resolving pleasurably on the shore of a big, satisfying major-chord “amen.”

The 10 Scholars, dressed in black, shifted positions on the stage as appropriate to each piece, sometimes women on one side, men on the other, sometimes split into two mirrored quintets. Most pieces had no featured singer; parts were doubled, or tripled, adding considerably to the dream-like aura of the performances. The sole exception to this was also the stand-out piece: The second half of the program opened with Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, once one of the most sacred pieces in the ecclesiastic repertoire. Five members remained on the main stage, while four more were two stories up in a stage-left balcony, and a lone tenor stood two stories up stage right. The extremely slow and sorrowful work, with sounds soaring out of the far corners of the acoustically crisp Ozawa Hall, was utterly mind-blowing.

It did take me a little while to get used to the unamplified sound of the voices. I’d been used to playing the Scholars’ music, completely inappropriately, at ear-splitting levels, where their pure sound packs the sort of punch that would make the likes of Rob Zombie turn white and leap out the nearest window.

Coming back for a second curtain call, as the ensemble took positions to perform another number, many in the crowd shrieked and screamed. There’s a reason the Tallis Scholars have the unlikely title of The Rock Stars of Early Music. There’s a reason Sting and Sir Paul have sought them out. The Tallis Scholars rock.

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