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Vocal Pleasure

March 11, 2008

Parler à son plaisir, veiller et dormir,
Crouer à plaisir, ou autrement va-t-en mourir.
(Speaking of pleasure, waking and sleeping,
Feast on pleasure, or otherwise we shall die.)

These words end Clément Janequin's Song of the Lark, which was performed by the all-male vocal group Clerestory on Sunday. As an epigram it might as well serve as the group's unofficial slogan. It is quite obvious that the most important aspect of the members' collaboration together — and possibly the most refreshing thing about this young group — is the immense pleasure they seem to enjoy when singing together. That pleasure and enthusiasm are infectious, and the few audience members present on Sunday had the rare opportunity to hear intimate music performed intimately at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, despite its large size.

The Clerestory Singers

Photo by Justin Montigne

I had the chance to review Clerestory once before at last year's American Bach Soloists' SummerFest, and noted then its remarkable clarity and unique timbre. Those qualities are still evident. The group possesses a seemingly magical ability to create a balanced and cohesive tone, while in no way suppressing the broad diversity of voices that make up the group. True, there is a "core" to its sound, as well as to its membership, generated by the fact that many of the founding members also have associations with Chanticleer.

But Chanticleer this group is not. While its "big brother" is famous for its generous sponsors, Grammy awards, and international fame, something about Clerestory (and maybe this is just its "spin") remains aggressively grassroots. The members remark in their mission statement, "We have undertaken something daring: to turn the elite Bay Area choral scene from something less commercial to ... something local, sustainable, and pure." In pursuit of these aims, Clerestory has undertaken such inviting measures as offering free informal receptions after its programs, and, more remarkably, making all its concert recordings free for CD-quality download from its Web site.

The group's generosity doesn't end with free food and sound files, however; it also has a social conscience, donating 5 percent of its ticket sales to nonprofit environmental organizations. (Considering the financial state of musical arts organizations, Clerestory's contributions will probably never lead to alternative fuel sources, but it's an awfully nice gesture.)
Graceful Versatility
I am hesitant to mention these extramusical qualities of their presentations, because they may sound like fluff, the actions of a group not up to high performance standards. But that's hardly the case. The members of Clerestory manage a grab bag of repertoire with ease and grace, on Sunday shifting between Palestrina and Britten, Howells and Byrd, as quickly as the group could rearrange itself onstage.

Listeners were wowed by precision and clarity in the Agnus Dei from Byrd's Mass for Five Voices. The sweet dissonances in Victoria's Super flumina Babylonis were enough to move me to tears.

It's particularly remarkable that, crotchety reviewer that I am, I even enjoyed Clerestory's rendition of the Ozark folk song Black Sheep. Here was an urbane, suavely dressed a cappella ensemble singing a folk song arranged by John Rutter — Rutter, for goodness sake, purveyor of saccharine junk popular among high school choirs and glee clubs. And I liked it, quite a lot. If that's not testament to the power of Clerestory's total package — a combination of enthusiasm, generosity, and high-level professionalism — then I don't know what is.

Jonathan Rhodes Lee studied harpsichord in New York, San Francisco, and the Netherlands. He is currently enrolled in the graduate program in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.