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The Premier Premiere Season

June 12, 2007

An ensemble as well-established and famous as Chanticleer is likely to inspire imitators. Its sound, which was once unique, has spawned countless men's a cappella choral groups around the country. Friday evening's Clerestory concert, however, proved that this group is not an imitator of the Chanticleer style but rather a champion of it. The depth and beauty of Clerestory's final presentation of its inaugural season established the group as one to watch in years to come. The program was built around the themes of mortality and eternal life, and spanned roughly 500 years of Western choral music. Beginning with Josquin's La Déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem, a funeral lamentation for the composer's teacher, and ending with works by a local composer, Paul Crabtree, who draws on Bob Dylan for inspiration, the styles varied widely. Clerestory, however, sang with great focus.

The Clerestory Singers

Photo by Justin Montigne

The eight male singers, who perform without a conductor, maintained a superb blend and balance, and took great care to shape even the most straightforward of phrases. The repertoire suited not only the program's theme but also the group's strengths — namely, a rich, full sound and an endless legato. My only possible quibble would be that the singers could use crisper diction, especially in live acoustic spaces, such as St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, where they performed on Friday.

Because the ensemble works in conjunction with the San Francisco Early Music Society, it typically features Renaissance and early Baroque composers prominently. Along with Josquin, we heard Thomas Morley, Purcell, and the little-heard French composer Claudin de Sermisy. The latter's Missa di Requiem draws heavily on the traditions of Palestrina and Victoria, but maintains its individuality nicely by breaking up polyphonic sections with unison passages and chant motives. The Agnus dei movement is particularly effective, with one voice intoning the phrase "agnus dei" with increasing plaintiveness while the choir responds with "qui tollis peccata mundi" (who takes away the sins of the world). The Mass ends with a denser, richer texture than the rest of the piece, but still leaves the listener with a light, uplifting feeling to match the text's supplication for eternal light and rest.

Another pleasantly surprising work was Thomas Morley's Nolo Mortem Peccatoris (I do not want the death of a sinner). Although quite brief, it showed an elegance and stateliness that are lacking in many of his English madrigals.
Burial Piece Sung Poignantly
The treasure of the evening came in John Tavener's Funeral Ikos (1981). The ikos (or oikos), is the first stanza of a hymn for a particular service or feast day in the Orthodox church, here the "Order for the Burial of Dead Priests." The homophonic setting allows the text (translated from the Greek) to come to the fore. The singers perfectly conveyed the hushed desperation of mourners who are willing to hope that something lies beyond the grave, yet are not entirely convinced of it.

The singers split into two choirs, which sang both in front of and behind the audience. The choirs alternated verses, coming together for the "alleluias" that link each verse. This made for a dramatic effect.

The last sets of the evening were notable more for their execution than their composition. Paul Crabtree's Three Tenebrae Responsories on Songs by Bob Dylan came from Crabtree's thought, as expressed in the program notes, that "Some of Bob Dylan's songs run parallel to these Responsory texts," and that he "based the Responsories on melodic, harmonic, and textural elements from ... songs in which I saw points of connection." I must admit I could not hear any melodic strains of Dylan, but then I hardly consider myself a connoisseur of his work.

Crabtree's style was evocative of much other contemporary choral music, but each piece was given a caring, sensitive rendition. Indeed, it was announced from the stage that Clerestory plans to collaborate with Crabtree in the future, which will surely yield interesting results. (Perhaps we will even hear his early work Five Romantic Miniatures from "The Simpsons"!)

Clerestory has cemented itself in the local choral scene as an impressive ensemble that combines remarkable musicianship with a clear love of the choral tradition. If all its programs are as carefully crafted and executed as this one was, the young group will quickly become a sensation.

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Miller holds degrees in singing from London's Royal Academy of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.