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Orchestral conductors would be much better if they tried performing Renaissance music

Peter Phillips on his not entirely successful attempts to persuade orchestral conductors to take on the great choral masterpieces of the Renaissance

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

To be honest, my friendship with Michael Tilson Thomas hasn’t gone quite as I had hoped. It started in February 1990, when he chose a Tallis Scholars track for one of his desert island discs. This was a movement from a mass by Josquin des Prez, that he said (apparently impromptu) was music which ‘completely comforts me and brings me into a state of tranquillity’. I thought I might have found a new messiah.

For many years now I have had the hope of meeting an orchestral conductor who is prepared to take on the challenges of performing a major work from the unaccompanied choral repertoire. Of course there have always been those who have included choral society-type singing in their symphony programmes. I mean those immensely complex a cappella masterpieces of the Renaissance which wouldn’t know an orchestral instrument if they saw one, and can last 20 minutes without a break. There is a huge conceptual gulf between what Tilson Thomas normally does, and what I do, and I have longed to hear what a top maestro would make of the latter.

So far no one has come near to bridging that gap. I once gave a concert, in Ferrara, with Claudio Abbado, in which we sang Renaissance masterpieces from the city and he accompanied an Italian soprano on the harpischord, with music by Monteverdi. At the end he said he had never heard anything like our technique and fluency, nor had he any idea of the depth of achievement in this music from his native city. All he could do was apologise for the manifold inadequacies of his soprano, who seemed to have a problem with singing the right notes in the right order at the stipulated pitch. He probably would have accepted my challenge to conduct Tallis if he hadn’t had a million other things to do, and perhaps it will be ever thus.

Undaunted, however, I have continued the dialogue with Tilson Thomas. The last time I bearded him was in his dressing room in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in 2011. He said he remembered me well, claiming that every time he put on a recording of classical music, which was rarely, he would choose one of ours. (I discovered afterwards that this wasn’t what he had said to Jordi Savall, but we’ll let that pass.) I had high hopes of this meeting, which ended with him offering to share a concert. Warning bells had sounded, however. Although he had chosen Monteverdi’s Vespers as the disc above all the others that he would take to his desert island, I found his interest in pre-classical music a bit fuzzy. He had, for instance, become fascinated by the ‘earliest piece of Greek music’ so far discovered — this kind of thing is a famous nonsense area to the experts — and turned it into a loudspeaker jingle of welcome at the San Francisco Symphony Hall. I feared this would not prepare him for Spem in alium; and I notice in his all-time list of recordings that he hasn’t come near the Vespers, despite describing it in 1990 as his favourite piece of all time. Our conversation finished with him observing that Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia gave him ‘erectile tendencies’. His version of Spem could be quite something.

I went to both his Prom concerts last week, and came away thinking that the San Francisco Symphony plays so well because Tilson Thomas never gives the impression that the show is about him. I won’t bore you with a list of conductors for whom this minimum requirement is foreign territory, but he directs in such a way as to encourage rather than demand, enabling every player to react to the music as they feel it, secure in an overall sonic picture which is as refined as any in the world. There wasn’t a fluff in the whole of Mahler’s First Symphony. It wasn’t as loud as I have heard it on occasion, but it had a confidence and an elegance one normally associates with the best of the German orchestras.

I would offer one piece of advice, though. Like all large groups of musicians, this orchestra tends to rush towards cadences. Such rubato may be acceptable within the confines of late 19th-century style, but at these moments the players lose their superlative ensemble, and they don’t keep with Michael’s beat. If he had conducted more Renaissance music he would have had to confront this problem in every bar, where precision matters more. The moral of this story is obvious (to me).

Perhaps I am the sort of person who annoys people like Tilson Thomas. But I don’t see why my world shouldn’t intersect with his, and I shall carry on saying so until it does. I realise this may not be just yet.

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