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Chanticleer: Voices of the Stars

September 17, 2010


Chanticleer began its 33rd season this week with “Out of This World,” a program built around music referencing the stars, the planets, and the heavens. The men’s chorus drew principally on music of the Renaissance, Romantic, and modern eras, and delivered a performance that was varied in content, well-nuanced, and crowd-pleasing.

Friday’s concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music began with four early sacred settings, immediately showcasing the group’s excellent intonation and attention to textual expression. Among these, two settings of Ave regina coelorum stood out: a Gregorian chant for its mellifluous execution in flawless unison, and a double-choir piece by Andrea Gabrieli for its energy and joy.

The second set presented four Italian poems: two in Renaissance settings and two in modern ones. The Renaissance madrigals, both by Claudio Monteverdi, were each sung by a quintet of singers, allowing the works an intimacy and transparency that was well-suited to the poetry. William Hawley’s six-voice Fuggi, fuggi dolor, which followed, though a modern piece with modern harmonies, is written in a madrigalesque style, and might have been more compelling if given a similar intimate performance with only six singers. With the full choir of 12 men singing, the sound was somewhat overwhelming in contrast to the preceding madrigals. The final piece in this set, Mason Bates’ Stelle, vostra mercè, had no such problems — it was written for Chanticleer, and artfully employed the group’s voices to evoke a sky full of stars.

The central portion of the program included Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, Robert Schumann’s An die Sterne, and a choral arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt. The Hymn to St. Cecilia showed Chanticleer at its best: a crystalline lightness in the fast central passage, expert tuning, wide dynamic contrasts, and attention to diction. An die Sterne and Ich bin der Welt, in contrast, though well-sung, suffered from the lack of a larger, more lush sound, and, as with some of the other pieces, a lack of blend among the sopranos.

A section of the program devoted to newer works began with a passionate performance of Kirke Mechem’s Island in Space. This was followed by Observer in the Magellanic Cloud, a world premiere by Mason Bates. The piece imagines a satellite floating through the Magellanic Cloud, picking up distant signals from a past time on Earth, witnessing Maoris chanting in prayer. Bates has a strong sense of how to write for this accomplished group of singers, as the piece demanded multiple layers of unusual choral sounds, such as one singer imitating the digital pulsing of a beeping device turned on and off by another singer, as well as a percussive approach to the text. Chanticleer included some choreography in its performance, adding a visual element to the imagined satellite’s observations. Sarah Hopkins’ textless Past Life Melodies also explored unusual vocal techniques, with drones, the sounds of a didgeridoo, and harmonic overtone singing; the drones and didgeridoo were audible, though the harmonic overtones were difficult to identify.

Indie Rock Wins the Day

Chanticleer closed the program with four arrangements of jazz, musical theater, and indie rock music. It was the indie rock that won the most enthusiastic response from the audience, with a world premiere of a Vince Peterson arrangement of Erika Lloyd’s Cells Planets, and with the song Change the World, which Eric Clapton popularized. These two songs, like the two spirituals that followed as encores, were sung without scores, adding a vibrancy to Chanticleer’s musically deft performance. The chorale’s newest soprano, Casey Breves, sang the lead in Cells Planets, showing off a clear, strong voice. One-year veteran tenor Ben Jones, offering a gentler sound, took the lead in Change the World.

The printed program suggested that contemporary popular music, such as the music in this last set, was essentially no different from music of the Renaissance time, quoting Lloyd as saying: “It’s all about the same thing. We’re still singing about love, still singing about heartbreak. It was popular music in Elizabethan times. We haven’t changed that much.” Yet performing such music, within the context of traditional classical styles, made clear that there is, indeed, a difference. The audience as a whole reacted most passionately to these final pieces, but nonetheless the set seemed out of place because the musical style was so different from the myriad styles that had come before. Modern rock music, however well-crafted, frequently relies on a harmonic language that is fundamentally easy for the nonmusically trained to appreciate. In juxtaposition with the incredibly rich harmonic languages of composers such as Mahler, Britten, and Monteverdi, this final set seemed to offer less musical depth — a less than satisfying way to end the program.

Aside from this contemporary popular repertoire, however, the most notable difference between this and previous Chanticleer concerts that I have heard was the engagement with the music that all members of the ensemble displayed throughout the program. To succeed in singing with a superb level of musicianship in so many different genres, an excellent sense of ensemble (without a conductor), and a palpable sense of passion is no small accomplishment.

Kaneez Munjee is a singer, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University, and specializes in late 17th- and early 18th-century French music.