Chanticleer returns, bringing warm holiday cheer on a chilly night

Wed Dec 08, 2021 at 10:17 am

By Tim Sawyier

Chanticleer performed a Christmas program Tuesday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church. File photo: Todd Rosenberg

On the coldest night of this winter to date, Chanticleer returned to Fourth Presbyterian Church for its traditional offering of musical holiday warmth. Resuming the annual “A Chanticleer Christmas” program, presented by Symphony Center Presents after a year’s pandemic hiatus, the 12-member, male a cappella choir offered the kind of varied, engaging, and characterful performance Tuesday night that has made Chanticleer the preeminent ensemble of its kind.

The evening began in theatrical fashion, with the sanctuary fully blacked out, and a countertenor soaring the opening lines of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ave, generosa” from the back of the cavernous space. More voices gradually joined in the medieval mystic’s intricate benediction of the Virgin Mary, as eight of the Chanticleer members processed in pairs down the central aisle holding candles. When the singers had reached the stage, the remaining four members followed, pausing about halfway through the sanctuary, which created a remarkable antiphonal effect. In the audience one felt enfolded in voices as the two groups sang to each other across the space. Prepared by music director and ensemble alum Tim Keeler, the singing was haunting and flawless, setting a standard for the evening.

A set of selections from the German Renaissance composers Michael Praetorius and Johannes Eccard followed. Founded in 1978, Chanticleer to an extent built its reputation on such repertoire, and Tuesday’s performance made clear why. The settings, from around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, glowed in the ensemble’s eloquent treatments, creating a sense of connection between our modern holiday celebrations and the devotions of the past.

A more varied set followed. To begin, Chanticleer offered the well-known “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” with each verse alternating between settings of Praetorious, Hugo Distler, and Jonathan Woody. Distler was a German composer in the first part of the 20th century who took his own life amid the horrors of the Holocaust, and Woody is a noted African-American composer and bass-baritone currently residing in Brooklyn. While such an approach risked pastiche, the effect was remarkably cohesive, emphasizing the musical continuity between the varied times and places, rather than their disjunction. Familiar settings of “A Spotless Rose” (Howells) and other German and English carols rounded out the set.

An oddity on the program was Australian composer Melissa Dunphy’s “The Elements of the Sun Broke into Song,” with lyrics from an ancient apocalyptic religious text. Dunphy is known for her politically engaged compositions, such as her Gonzales Cantata, which takes its texts from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of the former attorney general. This number felt out of place Tuesday night, though Chanticleer gave their all to the ecstatic lines. This was followed by a jazzily inflected “Carol of the Bells” to bring the first half to a close.

The second half opened with more sublime chant in the form of Vicente Lusitano’s “Ave, spes nostra,” followed by the 20th-century German composer Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” A Chanticleer calling card, this moving setting is adorned with slowly ascending lines that seem never to stop rising, which the Chanticleer men sustained to excellent effect.

The remainder of the program was emphatically Christmas-themed. A peril of this time of year is the seeming ubiquity of highly familiar music, yet Chanticleer provided unfamiliar and unexpected fare as well, such as Alfred Burt’s “Caroling, Caroling” and Abbie Betinis’ “Run, Toboggan, Run!” Music director Tim Keeler’s arrangement of “I Wonder as I Wander” felt aptly reflective, and a highlight of both the set and evening was countertenor Logan S. Shield’s exquisite, ethereal solo in Howard Blake’s “Walking in the Air,” arranged in a hypnotic setting by ensemble member Adam Ward.

A bluesy version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and a rousing medley of Christmas spirituals brought the evening to a fittingly jubilant conclusion. In case anyone had missed the point, “Christmas Time is Here” served as a brief encore.

“A Chanticleer Christmas” will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

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