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Concert Preview: EMG presents The Tudor Choir

September 15, 2009




On Saturday, October 31, EMG begins its 33rd season with a performance by The Tudor Choir at Town Hall at 8PM.  Tickets are $38/$35/$20 based on location and can be ordered online by clicking here or by calling (206)325-7066.  There will be a free pre-concert lecture at 7PM.

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“16th-century Flemish polyphony”: even to enthusiasts, the title of the Tudor Choir’s season-opening concert may seem a little dry, even arcane. That’s a shame, because among the pieces to be performed are some of greatest masterworks of their period (roughly the century between 1450 and 1550), and their composers (Obrecht, Gombert, Jacob Clemens, and Jacob Vaet) though now little-known, were among the most celebrated of their day.

One reason for their present day obscurity is that almost all their music was set to Latin texts for practical use in church services. It’s difficult for modern ears to “hear past” the liturgical associations of these solemn a cappella creations to the purely musical architecture which underlies them. Recognizing that, Tudor Choir artistic director Doug Fullington has chosen in his program to make the association explicit, by building it around a full rendition of the Catholic mass.

Since all masses share substantially the same text, they were known by nicknames, usually derived from some special text not part of the standard liturgy. For the spine of his program, Fullington has chosen the mass by Vaet (court composer to the arts-loving Emperor Maximilian), known by the name “Ego flos campi” (“lilies of the field”).

As his predecessors had for centuries, Vaet based his new work on a pre-existing melody: in this case a setting of a verse from the Old Testament Song of Solomon (“I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys. . . .) by his elder contemporary Clemens, surrounding passages from Clemens’ piece with rich elaborations of his own in each of the five “movements” which comprise every mass.

Technically, Clemens’ original is a “motet,” which in the high renaissance meant  a multi-voice treatment of a religious text suitable for use as accessory music for a mass. In addition to Clemens’ Ego flos campi, the choir will perform other motets interspersed with Vaet’s mass movements: Gombert’s setting of King David’s lament for his traitorous son Absalom, the Prodigal Son’s plea to his father (as reported in St. Luke’s Gospel) by Clemens, and Obrecht’s version of the prophet Joel’s prayer for Jehovah to forgive his people their transgressions.

Two settings of the traditional prayer to the Virgin Mary, Salve regina, by Obrecht and Vaet respectively, open and close the program. Obrecht’s six-voice version, composed sometime in the 1480s, combines traditional plainsong with rich polyphony, in one of the signature works of a period rich in great music.

– Roger Downey

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