What is almost certainly the most famous single piece of Renaissance choral music is also one of the least-often performed. It’s Thomas Tallis’ religious motet, “Spem in alium.” It was composed for 40 voices, organized in eight choirs, each consisting of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass.
The highly regarded professional choral group Polyphony is giving New Mexicans a rare chance to hear “Spem in alium” on Saturday, Nov. 23, in a unique “workshop performance” at Albuquerque’s Cathedral of St. John.
The event’s structure “allows us to demonstrate how the piece is constructed, how all the voices work independently and together,” explains Maxine Thévenot, the group’s artistic director. “We’ll also try out different singer placements, including a ‘surround sound’ version with the singers encircling the audience.”
The event begins with an introductory talk by Colleen Sheinberg, director of the University of New Mexico’s Early Music Ensemble. A reception for audience and singers follows the performance.
Thévenot used online crowd-sourcing to gather singers for the event, augmenting Polyphony’s 32 members with performers from Albuquerque’s choral community. The “Tallis Tally” now stands at just over 80 performers, some as young as 14. This is Polyphony’s second crowd-sourced event; the first was in 2017 with a workshop performance of Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem.
It’s believed that the largest group ever to sing “Spem in alium” was assembled by the BBC in 2006, when more than 700 singers gathered in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall to rehearse, perform, and broadcast it in a single day.
Tallis is considered one of the most important 16th-century English composers. His career spanned more than 50 years of political and religious upheaval, and he was able to vary his style to satisfy the highly divergent demands of different monarchs, and of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. “Spem in alium” was written around 1570, almost certainly inspired by the London visit of Italian composer Alessandro Striggio in 1567 to lead performances of his 40-voice Mass. Tallis’ composition is full of ingenious musical touches, including an “Easter egg” for those who know the score — the full 40 voices sing together for the first time in its 40th measure.
The event starts at 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Cathedral of St. John, 318 Silver Ave. SW, Albuquerque. Tickets are $20; free admission for full-time students; polyphonynm.com. — Mark Tiarks