Tallis Vocalis: A Renaissance Easter Journey

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Apr 1
 

Hong Kong’s only early music vocal ensemble, Tallis Vocalis, have prepared an exciting Easter programme for the city’s cultural set. Ambrose Li sits down with founder Raymond Choi ahead of what promises to be an enlightening evening of music.

As the popular story goes, after Mozart’s visit to the Vatican in 1770, the then 14-year-old musical prodigy transcribed Allegri’s Miserere – a piece composed in the early 15th century exclusively for use at the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week – having only heard it for the first time that day. Fast forward a few centuries and the choral piece still enjoys more widespread popularity among musicians and worshippers alike. 

This April, Tallis Vocalis is introducing Hong Kong audiences to a new version of Allegri’s signature composition, set down by musicologist Ben Byram-Wigfield and Harry Christophers of world-renowned ensemble The Sixteen. Miserere will anchor a programme of evocative Lent and celebratory Easter music as the 20-piece local ensemble takes its audience on A Renaissance Easter Journey.

And it promises to be quite the journey, too. “The first half of this Easter concert is music written for the Holy Week leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, while the second half is written for Eastertide,” Raymond Choi, the chairman of Tallis Vocalis, the city’s premier early music and Renaissance vocal ensemble, tells us.

The programme also features other iconic Renaissance-era pieces such as If Ye Love Me and O Clap Your Hands by major English composers Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons. One certain highlight on the night will be the performance of Crucifixus by Italian composer Antonio Lotti. The piece divides the group of singers into eight parts to generate successive harmonic dissonances, suspensions and resolutions in a powerful re-telling of the Easter story.

Although the repertoire of the concert is rooted in sacred texts, a faith-based or scholarly understanding of the compositions is not a pre-requisite to enjoy the music. “The pieces are just amazingly beautiful by themselves,” Choi insists. “I defy anyone who will not be moved by Allegri’s sublime Miserere.”

Audiences will also be treated to Scottish composer James MacMillan’s setting of Miserere, arranged in 2009. “MacMillan pays homage to Allegri’s famous Miserere with the use of the same plainchants, but his composition is more immediate and intense,” says Choi. “It will be interesting for the audience to hear these two works side by side.”

While he admits Miserere is his favourite piece in the programme, he’s also found it to be the most difficult to rehearse. For him, though, working within such a niche genre is a labour of love. “My passion is Renaissance music and this motivates me to explore the huge untapped treasure of the Renaissance repertoire, which is so strongly deserving of an audience locally,” he tells us. “That is the reason I founded Tallis Vocalis.”

The Hong Kong-based group has overcome many hurdles since its establishment in 2013, including difficulty in finding the right singers. Choi points out that they are very selective in the audition process, though, because ‘our style requires singers who are able to produce a clean tone with little vibrato, which is not that easy to find.’

Although attracting concertgoers is another obvious difficulty, Choi does not pander to commercial pressures by having his ensemble perform only popular favourites. A bold move, perhaps, but one with good reasoning, given the popularity of early music works such as Allegri’s Miserere and Tallis’ Spem in alium. Choi points out that the majority of Renaissance vocal music has only been in the mainstream repertoire for a few short decades, with
much more yet to be heard by the public at large.

“Despite the difficulties,” Choi says, “we have been quite pleased with the reception [of Tallis Vocalis] so far. Music lovers often tell me they are thrilled to have a local group championing this long-neglected repertoire in Hong Kong.”

Tallis Vocalis
Fri Apr 1, 8pm, Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall; tickets, $80-$320.

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