Ensemble Plus Ultra refurbishes 16th century classical treasure

“Thus far, and further” is the translation and the motto for early music singers Ensemble Plus Ultra, who perform liturgical music from the Renaissance. “Thus far, and further” is the translation and the motto for early music singers Ensemble Plus Ultra, who perform liturgical music from the Renaissance.

Ever wonder what Spanish explorers listened to as they mapped the world? Probably not. But worth exploring are the discoveries of Britain’s Ensemble Plus Ultra.

The ensemble is an eight-piece consort of chamber musicians that sings early liturgical music, mostly, from the Spanish Renaissance. Founded by Michael Noone in 2001, EPU formed when Noone discovered previously unknown music from the Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales in the Toledo Cathedral archive. In reconstructing 16th century choir books and other badly damaged musical texts he became enamoured with their potential for contemporary audiences. Compelled and inspired to share what he’d found, Noone got “the best singers” he knew together, and the group debuted with Morales’ rediscovered work in Toledo in 2003.

Since then, Plus Ultra has recorded 17 CDs, winning the 2012 Gramophone Award for Early Music, toured frequently throughout Europe (and extensively in Spain), performed at various music festivals, and recently introduced itself to American audiences.

The name Plus Ultra (“thus far, and further”) comes from the motto of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and first Hapsburg King of Spain, who modified his original motto of “Non plus ultra” (thus far, and no further) to grant Spanish explorers and the empire greater geographical reign. The ensemble, in turn, gives voice to previously unheard liturgical music and broadens the Renaissance musical canon.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do, very faithfully, is to reproduce the sound of the 16th century as much as possible,” Noone said.

Being faithful to the original music and the structure of the Spanish liturgy means excluding the conductor or minimizing any directorial influence. The point of the performances is to accentuate the voices of highly skilled individual singers while also merging their symphonic qualities. As singer and co-director David Martin said, “We tend to bring in the experiences of all of the musicians rather than just the opinions of one person at the front.” This shared autonomy is what makes the group a chamber and not a choir, and allows for slight improvisation or adjustment and adds to the push for discovery.

Noone, who received his doctorate in musicology from Kings College, Cambridge and now co-directs and does the historical research for the group, feels Plus Ultra’s objective is to emotionally interact with the audience.

“It’s all about moving the audience with the human voice. It’s about direct communication. There’s not very much point in discovering fabulous music if no one can hear it,” he said.

A significant connection is inevitable when eight singers (and six in Charlottesville) stand on an open stage with nothing but sheets of music separating them from the audience. It’s for that reason, among others, that according to Martin, “Classical music is going through a renaissance. The popularity of classical music concerts, and within that vast genre, chamber music concerts, is really increasing. I think its our job to make things a little bit more interesting to entice people in and encourage them to enjoy what we do.”

“I think ‘thus far, and further’ fits in very well with our desire to create new music and commission composers to write new music based on what has come before. The 16th century composer has written the music, it’s our job to bring it to life. They’ve done the ‘thus far’ bit, it’s our job to make it ‘and further’.”

Ensemble Plus Ultra is one of a wide array of classical chamber musical groups performing in the series this year. “We always have a smorgasbord of offerings for the entire season,” said TECS executive director Karen Pellón. The purpose of which, she said, “is to bring the finest classical chamber music to the region.”

Providing the highest quality of music has been the modus operandi of the series since its inception in 1948 when the TECS Group was founded by Martin B. Hiden and presented for its first concert, The Mozart Trio. In 1951, the series took its present form and has been showcasing notable classical musicians, such as Yo-Yo Ma, Yuri Bashmet, Pinchas Zuckerman, and Joshua Bell, ever since.

The Charlottesville audience will bear witness to the group’s chamber music and aural tones in a program that consists of music from Francisco Guerrero, Bernardo de Ribera, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Morales.

Ensemble Plus Ultra performs at Cabell Hall November 12. Samples of the group’s work are accessible at www.ensembleplusultra.com. Tickets to the Tuesday Evening Concert Series are available at the UVA Arts box office or the website at www.tecs.org.

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