When Peter Phillips met E.L. James

On their recent tour of the Americas, the Tallis Scholars had some surprising encounters - musical, literary and culinary

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

Tours that start in Mexico have a nasty habit of repeating on one. Of all the British groups touring in the United States at the moment, we were the only one to launch our efforts there. But the upshot is that, two weeks later and safely in New York, I am still directing a sea of unnaturally white faces. I am often asked what happens when someone falls ill on stage. The answer is that they leave it, while trying to give the impression that this is all part of the evening’s entertainment. The resulting sense of unease can be felt by everyone in the room, but is perhaps worst for the conductor, whose job it is to fashion an interpretation out of people whose minds are surely elsewhere.

The Tallis Scholars were in Mexico City for the Festival del Centro Historico de Mexico, under new management since last year. The collapse in the price of oil has hit Mexico hard, and of course when these things happen it is arts funding that is cut first. Perhaps this was why we were the only one of the six British groups who were nearby to be waving the flag in this festival. The other five, all on tour in the US during April, were St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, Canterbury Cathedral Choir, the Monteverdi Choir, I Fagiolini, and Fretwork. It was said about ten years ago that the British were losing their hegemony in international early music-making. On current evidence, I would say it has been reclaimed.

Several of these groups were in New York for Carnegie Hall’s Before Bach series, whose very title plays into my conviction that Bach has taken over as Number One Composer. The safest way for this daring initiative to go was into the music of Monteverdi — nowadays familiar to enough concert-goers to guarantee a big crowd. John Eliot Gardiner obliged, with performances of the Vespers and Orfeo. But to my delight the planners had also identified Tallis’s Spem in alium as music worthy of their confidence, and paid for a student choir to join my ten professionals in a performance of it. This was an excellent scheme. The payment was for the students’ travel and accommodation without fee, which yielded some of the best young singers on the circuit from, among other places, New York, London and Sydney.

The unanimity with which this multinational team approached the sound that I think to be ideal for such music showed us all how far things have progressed. Even ten years ago, this general knowledge was not available. It would have taken me hours to explain what I wanted. These young singers have grown up with the sound in their ears, and since it is an easy, natural sound, they produce it without strain. At last, proper voice-training is turning away from learning how to project vibrato into a vast, dry opera house and towards how to present thousands of notes every evening with a technique that will preserve the freshness of a voice over long tours. It is a fundamental change of direction that I call real progress.

One of the incidental pleasures of the event was meeting Erica (E.L.) James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. In the course of the first novel of her trilogy, she refers to Spem in alium, in distracting circumstances. For the first time since all the fuss started about these books, I kept quiet about the fact that I haven’t read them. I got the impression she wouldn’t have minded though, as she reacted to the entirely unexpected success of her writing philosophically. I asked her if she was going to write anything more, to which she said she wouldn’t have thought so. But she remembered every performance of Spem she had ever attended, dating back decades, which is more than I can.

Tours of this length (over three weeks) breed their own styles of humour, usually mordant. The space that my local Starbucks occupies on 75th and Broadway has so little atmosphere that it is as though what there was had been artificially sucked out. It is like a canteen in an educational facility where people treat each other as they do on public transport. Rather more characterful was the motorway service station that offered, as part of its deep-fried repertoire, liver and gizzard. At first I read this as a spoonerism, not that that made much difference to what I did next. And I enjoyed the reason I was given for why the largest city in Alabama was named Birmingham. Apparently, the founders of the state did their best with a raft of Indian names, and then gave up. I wonder if the denizens of Brum know that they became the default setting for a nascent American state.

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  • Mr Grumpy

    “In the course of the first novel of her trilogy, she refers to Spem in alium, in distracting circumstances.”

    Mr Phillips, you write as well as you conduct. That sentence has made my day.