Gulf lesson

Catching up with a friend in London this week, we had a lively conversation about an article written by Peter Phillips in The Spectator last year. Until recently Phillips – founder of the prolific early music group The Tallis Scholars – wrote a regular column of provocative thoughts on a whole gamut of topics related to classical music. In this piece Phillips suggests that orchestral conductors would benefit from performing the Renaissance choral music that has been the focus of his musical career. Recounting the tales of his abortive efforts to engage notable orchestral conductors in performing this repertoire, Phillips questions why “bridging [the] gap” has been so uncommon when the performance challenges of orchestral and Renaissance music might “intersect” in a way that is instructive to performers. There are, I fear, some rather practical (and mundane) reasons why these crossovers are not common. But as I considered this article I became interested in the idea that the divide Phillips was articulating was rather less a question of repertoire, and rather more one of differing attitudes to how a conductor nurtures ensemble with a group.

The article recounts the story of an unrealised project to have Michael Tilson Thomas conduct Thomas Tallis’ forty-part motet Spem in alium. This piece, which could prove a fascinating pairing with any number of later orchestral works, is undoubtedly an example of the “immensely complex a capella masterpieces of the Renaissance” Phillips refers to. However I would suggest that Spem is notable in part for its being unique: though there are the forty- (and indeed sixty-part) works of Alessandro Striggio, not to mention the corpus of Venetian polychoral works, these differ from Phillips’ description of those pieces “which wouldn’t know an orchestral instrument if they saw one”. And where a performance of these vast choral works in the hands of someone more accustomed to working with a symphonic pallet is certainly an intriguing idea, I am not so certain that it would raise the same kind of performance considerations that Phillips envisages would be apparent in the dose of Renaissance music for more modest forces that he seems to be prescribing for conductors of late 19th-century orchestral music.

I remember one of my teachers once saying, somewhat exasperatedly, that he heard a lot of conductors talk to orchestras about playing like they were performing chamber music and wondered if any of these conductors might start conducting like the were performing chamber music. The point being, of course, that sometimes the best thing a conductor can do is nothing, thereby letting the musicians’ attention move from what their eyes tell them to what their ears tell them, empowering their musicianship in the process of creating ensemble. My own past experience of singing Renaissance choral music, often without a conductor, was deeply instructive in honing the kind of listening and sensitivity that I think one develops performing any kind of chamber music. It is this kind of approach that I always try to bring into the way I work with orchestras. And its through this mindset that I understand Phillips’ assertion that “precision matters more” in Renaissance music as meaning that it requires the same focus of chamber music because the setting and texture is less forgiving than one might find in the broader brush strokes of orchestral writing.

I fear, though, that when Phillips refers to “precision” he envisages that “superlative ensemble” can be maintained from a conductor physically micro-managing every point of give and take in a phrase so as to avoid the situation where an ensemble “don’t keep with [the] beat.” I agree that, as Phillips writes, there is a “huge conceptual gulf” in the work of different conductors. However to my mind this has almost nothing to do with period or style of repertoire, and almost everything to do with whether one sees the conductor’s role as defining for musicians what the change of pulse is through the phrase, or whether it as acting as a focal point to feel with musicians what the groups collective musical instincts tell them this subtle variation should be. A few sentences here are a paltry introduction to such a fascinating topic, but perhaps anything longer would be too little anyway since it could well be that understanding this issue is the life’s work of any conductor. It is an issue developed by the insights and experiences one gains from any music involving more than one person: from something improvised a few minutes ago, to a choral masterpiece penned six hundred years ago.