Vocal music

Some “Show-Off” Choral Pieces from Ars Nova

A preview by Marc Shulgold

One of the popular acts on the old Ed Sullivan TV show featured a guy dashing around madly,  keeping a dozen dinner plates spinning atop a dozen skinny wooden poles. Talk about having your hands full.

Thomas Edward Morgan knows the feeling.

Thomas Edward Morgan

Thomas Edward Morgan

On Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19 and 20, he’ll be guiding 40 singers through a pair of Renaissance choral works consisting of 40 individual parts.

“These were not intended for a church service – more as a court event to show off the singers,” Morgan said of the two monster works: Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium and Allesandro Striggio’s Ecce beatam lucem. (The program also includes six-part works by Carlo Gesualdo.)

An obvious question: How does a conductor keep everyone and everything on course? “Actually, the challenge is one of the pleasures for me – the physical challenge,” he replied.

Morgan pointed out that he’s had some valuable experience with these two pieces. “This is the fifth time I’ve done the Tallis and the third time with the Striggio.” In fact, Ars Nova has recorded both works (“Luminescence – Music for Many Voices,” released in 2004 on the group’s New Art label).

Ars Nova

Ars Nova

When the singers take their places at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Feb. 19 and in Boulder’s St. John’s Episcopal on Feb. 20, they’ll form a near-complete circle, the conductor explained. And they will be thoroughly prepared.

“I’ve worked with the people individually, matching the singers with the appropriate parts,” he said. “During rehearsals, I got to walk around to focus on certain groups.” Morgan noted that each composer divided the 40-voice choirs into smaller, bite-size portions: Tallis splits them into eight 5-part groups, while Striggio uses five 8-part, or 10 4-part choirs.

But why 40? Is there some significance to that number? “There have been numerical analyses, and I believe there’s some validity to thinking there was some significance,” the conductor suggested. As evidence, he pointed out that, in the Tallis, each voice enters individually, until all the voices finally converge – in the score’s 40th measure.

As mind-boggling as these works are for the performers, listening could prove a challenge all its own for the audience. For starters, both pieces are in Latin. The opening lines of the Tallis translate as “I have never put my hope in any other but in You, O God of Israel.”  The Striggio begins, “Behold the blessed light, behold eternal goodness.”

The language isn’t the biggest problem, however. Where do we look? How do we understand what’s happening? Not to worry, the conductor reassured. “We’re going to do a short, eight-minute demonstration of the Tallis, before we perform it. I think that will provide a greater context.”

Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis

There’s an amusing history behind the Tallis work, the conductor related. It seems that Striggio, a composer in Italy’s Medici court, visited London in 1567, most likely bringing his 40-voice extravaganza with him. It was performed for some high-ranking Londoners – no doubt with Tallis in attendance. As a response to this impressive work, Morgan theorized, the English court declared, “Our guy can do that!” And so, Spem in alium was created, just to show those smug Italians that the English are fully capable of keeping all those dinner plates spinning.

Ars Nova will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 19 in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant St., and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 20 in St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine St., Boulder. Information: http://www.arsnovasingers.org/concerts.

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