Chanticleer’s Christmas show continues appealing mix, sacred and profane

Wed Dec 09, 2009 at 12:40 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Chanticleer performed a holiday program Monday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

Chanticleer, the twelve-member all-male ensemble, has a clear but testosterone-infused sound, the timbral opposite of pre-pubescent boy sopranos or all-female choral groups.

True, when the stellar vocal ensemble, named for the “clear singing” rooster in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, began in San Francisco more than three decades ago, the idea of an all-male choir seemed a relic of times when women were forbidden from performing in churches.

But with its tight, virtuosic ensemble, wide repertoire, unique showmanship and rapport with audiences, Chanticleer serves as a reminder of what a mesmerizing, haunting and ethereal sound an all-male adult choir can achieve. Nowhere is what this a cappella chorus can do more apparent and appealing than when the group makes its annual pilgrimage to Fourth Presbyterian Church to perform its vast variety of Christmas music.

Monday night’s program spanned the gamut from medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony to swinging arrangements of jazz and spirituals along with contemporary compositions and carols. With the Gothic-style church arrayed with wreaths decorated with ribbons of Advent purple and pews so packed that additional aisle seating was set up to accommodate the overflow, anticipation was high.

The church was suddenly immersed in complete darkness until a silence was achieved that would be the envy of any concert hall.  Gradually, in the distance, faint Gregorian Chant could be heard, gaining in intensity as Chanticleer members proceeded slowly into the church down the center aisle, their faces faintly illuminated only by the single candle that each held in his hand.  The chant itself proclaimed Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is born) reaching its dynamic climax when the group arrived on a raised platform at the front of the church with Gloria in excelsis Deo, Alleluia.

With the evening’s concert taking place on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Marian texts dominated the program.  These included a sumptuous High Renaissance setting of the Ave Maria for six voices by Josquin Des Prez, a spicy Spanish setting of Sancta Maria yn ilhuciac (Hail Mary, Queen of Heaven) by 16th-century Mexican composer Don Hernando Franco, and a 1964 Ave Maria setting by German composer Franz Bibel in rondo form with a touch of jazz harmony.

The largest and most revelatory piece of the evening was an elaborate Russian Magnificat by Cesar Antonovich Cui, the least known and least performed of the so-called “Russian Five.”   Cui’s piece for solo soprano (all three sopranos sang alternate verses) and chorus fascinatingly evoked the shifting pitches of Russian Orthodox liturgical music and the reckless abandon and contagious rhythm of Russian folk music.

The carols and spirituals that finished off the concert are always surefire crowd pleasers, to be sure, but to these ears always sound somewhat jarring and overdone compared to the rest of these contemplative programs. The arrangements tend to be rather showy and schmaltzy, with abrupt key changes, finger snaps and excessive vocal virtuosity for its own sake.  Yes, we get it, these guys can sing anything, but just because they can, doesn’t mean that they should.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chanticleer’s Christmas show continues appealing mix, sacred and profane”

  1. Posted Dec 10, 2009 at 3:25 pm by Jasmine Annitra

    Oh my goodness! The entire group is amazing. Never have I heard such a pure vocal sound from a group of males! As an aspiring Music education major, both in vocal and intrumental, what is your secret?

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