Under the auspices of UNCG’s Performing Arts Series (UCLS), the internationally renowned vocal ensemble, The Tallis Scholars, came to Greensboro to do what they do best: sing unaccompanied Renaissance music. The concert took place in the First Presbyterian Church, a cathedral-like structure perfectly suited for the complex web of vocal threads that make up this too-infrequently-heard repertoire. The Tallis Scholars is a 10-voice ensemble of men and women, directed by its founder, Peter Phillips. They were formed in 1973 and have become the leading exponents of Renaissance sacred music.

The large, enthralled audience attentively listened to the performance which was designed to explore the music of the late 16th and early 17th century, the “Spanish Golden Age.” Thus the listener was treated to unfamiliar composers such as a Spanish composer working in Mexico, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1548-1611), and Alonso Lobo (1555-1617), both contemporaries of the much more famous Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), whose 400th anniversary is celebrated this year.

A word about this music might be in order. Typically polyphonic, it consists of many separate melodies, with a great deal of give and take between the lines — often one imitating another. Contrast is provided when all of the voices sing the same text in the same rhythm. And text is of the utmost importance — beginnings and endings of musical lines coincide with the Latin verses. Many of the rhythms are text based, accentuating the natural rhythms of the language. Thus the sound is complex with a lot of subtlety and nuance.

The opening Regina Caeli (Queen of heaven) by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) provides an overview of the style. This motet is written for eight voices (although sung by all ten members of the ensemble), each of which moves in and out with the others in varying numbers of lines. Only at cadences do all the voices come together. This laudatory number was followed by another Guerrero work, the much more somber Hei mihi, Domine (Woe is me, O Lord), written for six voices.

The Tallis Scholars’ singing did not disappoint in any respect. The choristers, under the flexible and sometimes animated direction of Phillips, provided a liquid sound that flowed seemingly without effort. The sound was, by turns, soft and delicate, or more robust. The ensemble sings primarily without vibrato, the style most likely employed by the musicians of the time. This allows for tuning to be more pure and perhaps different from what we are used to hearing. Seldom, however, was the sound cold or detached, rather it was warm and engaging. Only half of the ensemble was employed in the oldest piece sung by the Scholars, the five-voice Sancta mater (Holy Mother) by Peñalosa. Often times, in fact, the texture thinned to only two lines, although the entire choir came together to sing climactic passages.

The highlight of the evening was the performance of Victoria’s Requiem, a composition written for the death of Empress Maria, Victoria’s patroness. It was also his last published composition. In addition to the standard Requiem text, the composer added an introductory Taedet animam meam (My soul is weary of my life) and a funeral motet.

When one hears the work in the context of his fellow musicians, it becomes clear what a supreme master Victoria was. Like his contemporaries, his vocal lines are shaped by the text, with alternation of syllabic and melismatic (more than one note per syllable) settings, but the juxtaposition of modalities and chords is amazingly unpredictable. Lovely turns of phrases lead the listener down unexpected paths, all for the purpose of expressing the emotion of the text. The singing here, too, was heartfelt and glorious. After hearing a concert such as this, the listener is amazed both at the beauty of music from so long ago and the caring and loving presentation by such an outstanding group of musicians.