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fountain, seattle university

(This is the eighth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

Apart from tutor groups and small groups, the second half of the day was filled with a kaleidoscope of activities. Things started off on Saturday afternoon, and after some meet-and-greet there was a talk by Peter Phillips about the music, where he went over the repertoire and displayed an English sense of humour, and also an English ability to mumble, even with a posh accent. (Incidentally, all the tutors spoke posh, albeit to varying degrees. And, of course, singing posh is a very good thing, even if one doesn’t speak posh. Also incidentally, a lot of the full choir rehearsals were held in Campion Chapel, where the singing may have sounded good/non-ugly, but the spoken voice rather lacked clarity.) On the second day was a concert at St. James Cathedral, by a local group called the Tudor Choir, with the three tutors joining in, and Peter conducting. Rebekah Gilmore, who is the Managing Director and general organiser of TSSS Seattle is a soprano in that choir. I believe that a lot of their members had attended TSSS in the UK and were partly responsible for bringing it to the US and specifically to Seattle. It was a really nice concert.

Monday was the only day on which there was a full rehearsal in the evening, and Tuesday, amazingly was a day off after a bit of small group singing in the morning. I had wondered about the sanity of this, given the amount of music left to learn (and also, I had signed up, and paid, to sing, not to go gallivanting around Seattle, beautiful city though it is!) but for most of us, including the semi-professionals, this was a perfectly timed break for the voice and brain from the musical overload that came before and after. We were specifically told not to sing in our time off that day, and there was no Compline that night either, so we all came back fresh on the Wednesday. That afternoon was a service in a local church where we sang Monteverdi’s Mass (with Peter), and also his Adoramus Te (with David), followed by a barbeque and a Q&A session back at the University. Thursday evening was when the small groups auditioned and performed in the Sharing (and we all headed off to the pub after that, along with some of the tutors), and Friday evening was the concert itself (also at St. James Cathedral), followed by the closing party.

The Wednesday service deserves a paragraph or two to itself, although the reasons are mostly non-musical. It was my first time at a Catholic service, complete with rituals and incense, along with plainchant that was, surprisingly, largely boring, and also organ music. The service lasted way longer than expected, delaying the barbeque and Q&A that were to follow. Better yet, it was in Latin and largely incomprehensible to the uninitiated, and done by a very orthodox priest, who talked about music in his sermon. He began promisingly, and we were with him when he talked about the connection between music and society, but the real fun began when he said that secular music (especially rock and roll) was the music of the devil. Not only did he not know about Coppini’s contrafacta, he clearly did not know that some movements of Handel’s Messiah are based on his own earlier secular compositions. And I’m sure he would have been absolutely destroyed to hear of the impromptu Macklemore rooftop concert that had delayed our bus while getting to the church, drastically cutting short our rehearsal time.

But while the sermon was “interesting,” the range of reactions to it among us were even more interesting. I laughed it off, and even napped for parts of it (as I also had on the slow bus ride); some others got annoyed, but still received communion; others who might have received communion otherwise changed their minds after the sermon and chose not to; some found it a normal and routine sermon and service, the latter being in Latin was the only slightly odd part for them; others expressed no disapproval whatsoever and even seemed to have enjoyed it; and some people, as expected, got really angry. This last category was the most interesting — it consisted largely of people who were Catholics themselves and who vehemently disagreed with the priest and thought he was giving their denomination a bad name, and therefore wanted to express their disapproval most strongly. All in all, it was a nice little study of human reactions. “Next year, we should have a Q&A with the priest instead of the Tallis Scholars” and “We should have invited him to the barbeque” were two of the comments that I remember.

I think the Q&A later that day also deserves some attention. One topic was the Tallis Scholars’ Eric Whitacre piece, commissioned on the occasion of their 40th anniversary. I have enjoyed Whitacre whenever I have sung him, so it was interesting to hear about him from the other side. As Whitacre himself describes in this YouTube video, there was a period of composing and rewriting, and discarding sketches and starting over, and then making more changes, right up to the last minute, before the piece had its premiere in March 2013. Titled Sainte-Chapelle, the piece has also been recorded and released since then.

Another interesting topic was how the Tallis Scholars approach different composers. Peter’s response was that they approach a current composer like Arvo Pärt in the same way that they might approach a Renaissance composer like Josquin, which surprised some people, but I think the real point is that the group has a certain basic sound that they are good at and confident about, and they stick to that sound, and to music that suits that sound, irrespective of the century it was composed in. Peter also told us that he never plays a new piece of music on the piano, or hears it in any form, he just reads the music and gets what he needs from that alone. (This concept still blows me away. And I also wonder if this ties in to the unaccompanied rehearsals. In any case, there is no question that he has a great ear and musical brain.)

A question during the Q&A was about the relative ease or difficulty of choral careers in America vs. England. As a lot of us have long suspected, London/England is “awash” in signers who have trained from a very young age in one of the many cathedrals and churches, so there is a lot more competition there than in America as far as singing careers are concerned, but, at the same time, if you want to direct a group, and have a new idea for a niche group, the “raw materials” (read quality singers) are far more readily available in England. (Hollingworth makes similar comments here.) As the week progressed, our interactions and comfort level with the tutors increased, and they were a very friendly bunch overall, ready to discuss anything. The Q&A was just a formal version of that interaction, and it was good fun, though having it outdoors, near a fountain, and with a helicopter hovering overhead for a while (possibly thanks to Macklemore again!) made the audio quality a good bit less than perfect.

In the next post I’ll write about an experience that is the most striking for a good number of the summer school students, namely, Compline.