Chanticleer brings reverence and panache to wide-ranging Christmas program

Tue Dec 07, 2010 at 12:47 pm

By Bryant Manning

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

Even the most irritable holiday curmudgeons had to be charmed by Chanticleer’s annual seasonal concert downtown on Monday night. Now that our 24-hour cycle of department store mayhem seems to arrive earlier than ever, Chanticleer’s peaceful Christmas program at a packed Fourth Presbyterian Church provided an eclectic alternative to all the controlled chaos and commercialism.

The cherubic, all-male chorus based out of San Francisco certainly can cover a lot of ground in two hours. These twelve voices tackled everything from Gregorian chant to Thomas Tallis to southern Gospel, and hardly skimped on the links in between. That the Christmas connection in each of the songs was less than obvious made for an even more subtle and satisfying celebration.

As the men approached the stage cloaked in complete darkness—save the lit candle each was carrying—they quietly intoned Christus natus est nobis, a plainspoken call to prayer. Perhaps this would be hokey under other circumstances, but in December in the august Michigan Avenue cathedral it was magnificently ethereal. This high level of artistry continued as they moved across time through the early Renaissance, deploying several tightly wound renditions of anonymous 15th century songs.

William Mundy, who lived in the shadows of the great William Byrd, wrote hypnotic liturgical music during Mary Tudor’s reign. This a cappella choir sang his Videte miraculum as if bobbing on the crest of an undulating wave.

Yet one of the most striking selections Monday was Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom’s The Word Became Flesh. After an abundance of English fare, it was pleasing to hear a distinctly different choral tradition altogether. (Some might remember Sandstrom from another Symphony Center Presents concert from earlier this year at Fourth Presbyterian, with the Swedish Radio Choir). Welcome dissonances, weird textures and other harmonic risks all composed this timely interlude.

A Chanticleer fan favorite is Franz Biebl’s melodic setting of the Marian antiphon Ave Maria. This is simple, down-on-the-farm goodness that warms all the extremities. Even some of the following traditional fireside carols (See, Amid the Winter’s Snow and The Boar’s Head Carol) had little on this performance.

Two highlights of the evening were arranged by ensemble music director emeritus Joseph Jennings. In Gustav Holst’s shatteringly quiet In the Bleak Midwinter, the choir sounded as if they were riffing on the Dvorak-inspired Goin’ Home. This was a pointed contrast to the various snappy numbers in a Christmas Spiritual Medley, a rousing homage to the fervent Southern Baptist tradition.

The program also featured serene selections by Suo Gan, Steven Sametz and Ivan Moody, all of which were handled with impeccable care by this uncommonly controlled vocal outfit.

The program, presented by Symphony Center Presents, will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Fourth Presbyterian Church.; 312-294-3000.

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