Chanticleer’s luminous art traces the Christmas tradition

Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 11:03 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Chanticleer performed Tuesday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

At first glance, Chanticleer’s concert Tuesday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church could have seemed like the musical equivalent of comfort food. Based in San Francisco and celebrating its 35th year this season, the 12-man a cappella choral group performs in Chicago regularly at holiday time. Their program is Christmas music, the epitome of the tried and true. Their fan base is huge, and the capacity audience at Fourth Presbyterian knew what to expect and whooped and cheered heartily when the gifted Chanticleer singers delivered it. (The program, sponsored by Symphony Center Presents, will be repeated at 7:30 tonight.)

But listeners aren’t coming back year after year simply to bask in the familiar. Many are probably drawn by the atmosphere of mystery and revelation that Chanticleer brings to everything they perform. The group’s purity of tone and seamless melding of pristine melodic layers filled Fourth Presbyterian with luminous sound Tuesday night. Built around Gregorian plainchant, the concert showcased every nuance of that sound, allowing it to fully blossom in the church’s ample yet intimate space.

The program was remarkably cohesive, which isn’t always the case with Christmas concerts. Audiences and singers want more than just a run-through of the usual carols, but sometimes the result is a grab bag of songs that don’t carry much emotional meaning for listeners or performers. Chanticleer chose to focus our attention instead on the roots of familiar Christmas tunes as they moved from the medieval O come, O come, Emmanuel to traditional carols like It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and a rousing finale of American spirituals.

Throughout the evening, we felt the strong connection between the hushed, austere lines of medieval chant and the more intricate but equally flowing melodies of later composers like Michael Praetorius and Andrea Gabrieli. Bringing 20th century pieces–Francis Poulenc’s shimmering O magnus mysterium and several haunting works by Estonian composer Arvo Part—into the mix underscored this season’s ancient musical tradition. It was invigorating to hear that trajectory develop.

Working with the standard choral divisions of soprano, alto, tenor and baritones and basses, Chanticleer is fastidious about its vocal arrangements. Tuesday’s performance of In dulci jubilo was an ingenious case in point. Opening with the traditional melody from the Middle Ages, the singers then performed one stanza each by Michael Praetorius, Hieronymus Praetorius (no relation) and J. S. Bach. It was fascinating to hear the lilting, gentle song sink into darker, more unsettled harmonies in the Hieronymus Praetorius setting and then emerge into Bach’s longer-lined, less ornamented setting.

Throughout the evening, Chanticleer maintained the miracle of a fully blended sound that nevertheless had the texture and color of individual voices. The three baritone-bass singers often provided a steady drone that resonated like a mighty, rumbling organ. Especially in the medley of spirituals, the group’s three soprano singers sounded light and airy yet strong.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 tonight.; 312-294-3000

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