ONE recent Friday evening, hundreds of people decided to ditch the movies and holiday shopping - and do the unexpected: sit on uncomfortable wooden pews in a local church, sandwiched in with about 1,000 other people, and listen to sacred Renaissance vocal music sung in Latin, courtesy of a group called the Tallis Scholars.
Hardly sounds like a lark. But it's a scene that has been repeated many times around the United States and abroad as the this celebrated London chorus brings its special brand of early music to 20th-century ears.
As the crystalline voices of the 10-member ensemble float up and seep into every marbled crevice of Saint Paul's Roman Catholic church, no programs rattle, no one shifts restlessly. The crowd is frozen by the unfolding, tranquil harmonies.
"It's the purity of the sound," says audience member John Davin. "I kept expecting someone to levitate in the audience!"
"When you hear the individual voices coming in one after another - it's a physical experience," says Edward Bailey, a non-musician from Beverly, Mass., who attended the concert with his wife. "It requires more concentration than listening to an orchestra because you're associating voices with persons and watching each person sing."
The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, have become internationally recognized for their otherworldly performances of 15th- and 16th-century motets, chants, and masses. Abandoning instruments for a pure a cappella approach, the group is riding a tide of interest in early music and "historically informed" performance. Though instrumental music dominates the field, the Tallis Scholars (named after Thomas Tallis, a Renaissance composer) attract huge audiences whether in Tokyo, Vancouver, B.C., or L aramie, Wyo.
Much of their popularity is due to the more than two dozen recordings they have made on the Gimell label. A recording of "Palestrina Masses" just won a Gramophone Award in the Early Music category - the second such award for the group.
"There's so much old choral music that people don't know exists," says Mark Kroll, chairman of the department of historical performance at Boston University. "Renaissance choral music is just so perfect. That was the dominant music of that day. It wasn't until the 17th-century that instrumental forces began to take over."
In Cambridge, Mass., the chorus exhibited its trademark emphasis on laser-sharp tuning and the blending of parts. A discrete strike of a tuning fork was all that was needed to launch the five women and five men into a river of counterpoint, smooth and seamless, fanning out into even denser polyphony. Unlike modern singing, little vibrato is used.
Mr. Phillips says he is less concerned with questions of "authenticity" than he is with the audience being able to distinguish each voice as it intertwines with other parts. Only with precise tuning, balance, and minimal vibrato can that be achieved.
"Our interpretation comes from the music itself," he explains in an interview. "There are five, six, even eight contrapuntal lines going on at once, and if those lines become unbalanced, then the listener will have a distorted picture of the whole piece. No one wrote this down in the 16th century and said 'this is how I want my music to be sung.' But we deduce it from the nature of the music."
Sometimes questions are raised over whether it is "accurate" to use women instead of young boys. Phillips offers a technical tidbit: "Boys voices broke much older in those days - around 18! It has to do with our consumption of protein. The age of puberty has come down by a good five years. So when people go on about authenticity about boys, I counter that it's physically impossible now to produce a 16th-century boys choir."
The type of tuning system used is often the focus of debate in early music circles. "That's one reason we don't use instruments at all - I can't bear to extend this argument," says Phillips. Adds soprano Tessa Bonner: "We sing with mean-tone tuning, which means that the major thirds are flatter than they would be on the piano, and minor thirds are sharper. It's a purer method of tuning."
The Tallis Scholars are not a religious group, but the Christian texts combined with the singing style have an uplifting effect. "I do hear people say that this sort of music takes them out of themselves and gives them an impression of a world beyond them," says Phillips. "They feel cleansed from their daily worries."
"I think you do get a sense of spirituality from it," comments Ms. Bonner. "We all get moved by it. Sometimes we see people with tears coming down their faces." The group will tour the US March 1-13, visiting Berkeley, Calif., Dallas, Houston, Pasadena, Calif., Washington, Sewanee, Tenn., St. Paul, Minn., New York, and Phoenix.