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Originally published Friday, October 26, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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Tudor Choir chooses Tallis' grand Spem in alium for 20th anniversary

Seattle's Tudor Choir celebrates its 20th anniversary with concert featuring selections from its new CD, "O Splendor Gloriae: Sacred Music of Tudor England," plus a double helping of Thomas Tallis' majestic 40-part motet, Spem in alium, on Oct. 27, 2012.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

The Tudor Choir

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Blessed Sacrament Church, 5050 Eighth Ave. N.E., Seattle; $20-$30 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com). (Note: The Tudor Choir presents The Tallis Scholars in concert at Blessed Sacrament on Dec. 7; tickets are $25-$50 at www.brownpapertickets.com)
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Seattle's Tudor Choir is celebrating its 20th anniversary — with music that's close to 500 years old.

The choir, led by 44-year-old Seattle native Doug Fullington, has a new CD out for the occasion, "O Splendor Gloriae: Sacred Music of Tudor England." It will perform much of it on Saturday at Blessed Sacrament Church in the University District. The concert begins and ends with an item not on the CD: Thomas Tallis' majestic 40-part motet, Spem in alium.

The idea of performing it twice in one concert, Fullington says, came from the Tallis Scholars' artistic director Peter Phillips, whom Fullington has worked with closely: "His opinion is it's nice to open with it and nice to close, because there's some familiarity when you hear it the second time. It's only about nine minutes, so hopefully that's not too audacious."

Other composers on the program are William Byrd, John Sheppard and John Taverner.

Fullington's fascination with 16th-century English church music began when he attended Seattle Lutheran High School. "Which sounds really odd," he admits. "But I had a really good high-school choir."

By 1991, he had joined The Compline Choir at St. Mark's Cathedral, where he put together "a little group to sing at the post-Compline recitals that they have sometimes." That formed the basis for the Tudor Choir, which launched its first concert series in January 1993.

The choir usually consists of between 14 and 16 singers.

"It just depends on what we need for a particular program," Fullington says.

For the 40 voices required for Spem in alium, he has called on singers he's met through various projects, including collaborations with Joe Crnko, leader of the Northwest Boy Choir and Seattle Symphony Chorale. Crnko also has thrown some film and video-game soundtrack work Fullington's way — which led to him conducting the theme for Showtime's series, "The Tudors."

"Isn't that weird?" he asks. "It just showed up and they said, 'This is for "The Tudors." '

Fullington has seen only a few episodes of the show, and is clearly surprised to hear that Thomas Tallis is portrayed in it as having a gay affair with one of Henry VIII's courtiers.

"He had a wife at some point," Fullington muses. "Her name was Joan Tallis. But we know so little about these people's lives."

This past summer Tallis and Spem took another curious pop-phenomenon turn while Phillips was in Seattle for a weeklong Tallis Scholars Summer School session. He and his fellow singers watched in bewilderment as, for no apparent reason, their 1980s recording of the work suddenly started climbing the classical-music charts.

It turned out that novelist E.L. James made prominent mention of it in her best-selling book "Fifty Shades of Grey." A soundtrack album for James' erotic-fiction trilogy, featuring the Tallis Scholars' performance of the piece, was subsequently released and spent several weeks at the top of Billboard's classical-music charts.

Fullington marvels that someone reading the book would take pains to seek out the recording: "That's kind of a leap, to actually go and figure out: OK, where is this song?"

Like many arts organizations, The Tudor Choir has seen its share of tough times. In 2007, it had to close its office space, lose its general manager and curtail its season. A performance at Blessed Sacrament in 2008 led to its becoming the resident group there.

"It's a Gothic Revival building," Fullington says, "a good place for what we sing."

With the church's help, the choir resumed presenting a full concert season in 2009-2010. Coming up is its first East Coast tour, which includes its debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 14.

What's the draw of English 16th-century music for Fullington and his singers?

"The harmonies and, I think, the lyricism of the music," he says. "That soaring quality the music has — that appeals to me a lot."

How do choir members' own issues of faith figure in performing this music?

"Nearly all of my singers have involvements with churches and church music," says Fullington, who's a Roman Catholic. "We don't talk about our personal beliefs very often, but we do talk about the texts and meanings. ... I don't think one needs to be Christian, religious or spiritual to be affected by the words and music. That said, I assume one's personal beliefs influence one's perception of this art."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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