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Charlotte’s Vox tackles a tongue-twisting classic

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You’d better chew soufflés before working up to a steak. David Tang learned that in eight years at the helm of Vox, the semiprofessional choir he began.

He started his troupe of 28 members on sugar-sweet harmonies by 20th-century composers such as Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen.

Now, for the first time – and maybe for the first time in Charlotte history – he’s feeding them one of the densest, toughest pieces of music from the last 500 years. This Sunday’s concert kicks off an ambitious slate of local premieres and neglected masterworks.

How hard is Thomas Tallis’ 16th-century motet “Spem in Alium” to sing?

The Renaissance masterpiece lasts just 10 minutes. But it involves eight different mini-choirs, each containing one soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass.

“Take the largest orchestral work in the world, and there aren’t 40 parts doing different things,” says Tang. “It’s unlike anything out there from a conductor’s perspective. My job is to keep the beat, start us up again together when there’s a pause, and hang on.”

He needed 12 other singers from the community, mostly basses, to augment his group. (One of them, Kenney Potter, just became director of the Charlotte Symphony’s chorus, Oratorio Singers of Charlotte.)

Some of the imports had limited rehearsal time, so Tang has assigned eight mini-conductors to supervise groups of five. He also created listening podcasts for all 40 parts, where the singers heard a click track, Tang’s voice counting every two measures and another choir singing behind him.

The result will ideally resound at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church as it did in England about 1570, when Tallis allegedly composed it for the Duke of Norfolk. (Hope Norfolk took the title to heart. “Spem in alium nunquam,” or “I hope in no other,” refers to God’s absolution of sin. Queen Elizabeth executed Norfolk for treason.)

Vox should nail this, if any local group could. Singers rehearse only twice a month, because Tang expects them to learn parts before practice. He calls singers out individually during rehearsals; if they “don’t have the part, I work on it with them in front of the group until they do.” But singers stay loyal; he estimates an annual turnover of perhaps three people, usually due to life changes (having an extra child, going off to college or the like).

That kind of cohesion lets them attempt not only “Spem in alium” but a new edition of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere,” written for Pope Urban VII about 1630.

The Vatican guarded it so closely that copying or performing it elsewhere could get you excommunicated; legend has it that the 14-year-old Mozart heard it once, wrote it from memory and brought it to Europe. The new edition omits the famous high C that tops the repeated refrain – a copyist’s mistake, apparently – but one of Tang’s sopranos will sing it anyhow. (“Everybody waits for it,” he says.)

He’ll also conduct Max Reger’s Brahms-like motet “O Tod, wie bitter bist du” and two American works: Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, adapted from Adagio for Strings, and Edwin Fissinger’s “In Paradisum.”

Tang’s adventurous, long-range plan includes Herbert Howell’s quietly emotional Requiem (written after the death of his son), Arnold Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” (composed in 1907, before he abandoned conventional melody) and more works by Antonio Lotti, whose Gloria in C got its world premiere from Vox in January 2014.

“I’m banking on the idea that Charlotte’s classical music crowd has grown since I’ve gotten here (in 1996),” he says. “I get a sense there’s more of a hunger for unusual music – not just from singers, but from audiences.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Vox choral concert

Music by Tallis, Allegri, Reger, Fissinger and Barber.

WHEN: Sunday at 4 p.m.

WHERE: St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 1510 E. Seventh St.

TICKETS: $20 ($10 students/seniors). $5 discounts if bought in advance at choralmasterworks.eventzilla.net.

DETAILS ABOUT VOX: www.facebook.com.

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