Men of Chanticleer Heed the Sirens' Call

Thomas Busse on September 17, 2012

Although the male voice ensemble Chanticleer markets itself as an “Orchestra of Voices,” choral programming rarely mimics an orchestral overture–concerto–symphony concert structure. Choral concerts are often most successful when they structure numerous short vignettes around several thematic axes, in the manner of vocal recitals. Chanticleer typically nodded to this structure in a concert of “The Siren’s Call,” which opened its new season Friday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The challenge of finding an entire slate of works where everything somehow, someway, has something to do with sirens leads to a few inopportune programming choices showing off certain weaknesses in the ensemble. Thematic programming, in short, tends to contort the music to fit the marketing.

To be fair, Chanticleer’s singing was uniformly assured and adequate, underscoring the “Orchestra of Voices” implication that Chanticleer breaks with the orchestra:good::choral:not-so-good paradigm. Sadly, this is the case with most choirs, simply because most choirs are not paid. Therefore, I approach Chanticleer with higher expectations than I would apply to most choral ensembles and hold them to very high standards. Saturday’s concert was being recorded for a live recording, and I suspect the program will require an extensive patch session.

The ensemble sounded truly great when performing works for full voices (that is, without falsetto), and its performance of Elgar’s Yea, Cast Me From Heights of the Mountains and Grieg’s I Laid Me Down to Slumber would be well worth the price of the entire album. The Elgar work comes from a set of five choral songs, and I would have loved to hear the full set, but this was the only one on the program that had something to do with Sirens. The group’s current tenors know how to carry the top melodic line of a choral ensemble in a way that is beautiful, appropriate, and musical.

This is not the case with the countertenors (or falsettists), who are really Chanticleer’s calling card. Whereas I could understand the English texts in the Elgar and Grieg works, John Corigliano’s mixed-voice composition L’Invitation au voyage (which, for some reason, bore a French title for an English text) might as well have been in French. Two high countertenors, especially, relied on unwieldy vibrato that was both out of tune and too fast. A few altos’ tone could be described as squawky. I am not impartial to vibrato, and it was used plentifully and appropriately by baritone Michael Axtell in the Grieg work and by Brian Hinman in an exquisitely rendered performance of Grainger’s choral classic Brigg Fair. My quarrel, rather, is with the tone, and much of the countertenor singing was simply in bad taste.

The ensemble sounded truly great when performing works for full voices.

This often caused chords to fail to “lock in,” especially in the chromatic madrigals opening the program and in chromatic passages in a choral transcription to a Mahler song. I consider this crucial to professional music-making, but it is also crucial to works like Gombert’s En Douleur et tristesse, where certain dissonances (called “seconds”) demand perfect tone and intonation. Chanticleer rendered an arrangement of Tom Waits’ Temptation and an arrangement of Deep River (originally intended for the Lawrence Welk Show) in ways that roused the audience, yet the group failed to do justice to the madrigals, basic to any professional choir.

Matter of Proportion

One point of performing such pop works is to show versatility and to challenge walls of cultural legitimacy in singing, but Chanticleer’s proportions are off. Call me highbrow, but old-timey gospel medleys such as The Old Ship of Zion (ship … sirens, get it?) simply do not speak to me and even have scary connotations of bigoted megachurches, in my personal cultural experience. I wish the countertenors had used their love of this music to inform their performances of the madrigals, rather than to emulate a wobbly misconception of classical singing.

One point of performing such pop works is to show versatility and to challenge walls of cultural legitimacy in singing.

The concert included a few premieres. Pride of place went to Mason Bates’ Die Lorelei, to an old German text by Heine. With copyright extended to impossibly long terms nowadays, it is sad so see so many contemporary composers resort to stuffy, public-domain texts far removed from their own cultural experience. Bates’ work used trendy, coloristic choral effects intelligently, relying on close seventh-chord harmonies reminiscent of Gene Puerling. Unlike many choral composers relying on this harmonic palette, Bates lent his work considerable structure and flow to carry the text. This work would, however, sound better with a mixed-gender ensemble.

Irish composer Michael McGlynn’s new Amhrán na Gaoithe and Hinbarra sounded more like arrangements than compositions. They belong to a choral genre I call “Faux music” because they take their inspiration too literally (McGlynn’s works would fit well into the soundtrack of Riverdance). Avoiding this pitfall was Chen Yi’s I Hear the Siren’s Call, where Chen distilled the essence of Chinese folk traditions within the context of modern compositional techniques. While her music is not pretty, still I would want to hear it again.

If it had not been dug out from the vault because of a tenuous relation to sirens, my life would have been complete without hearing Jaako Mäntyjärvi’s run-on Canticum calamitatis maritimae, which had a good concept but was poorly executed and in need of considerable editing. Ironically, Mäntyjärvi is best known for a parody called Pseudo Yoik, which pokes fun at works like McGlynn’s Hinbarra.