Friday, April 16, 2010

In time of Chanticleer

Chanticleer in flight.

We have a vibrant choral music scene here in Boston. Very vibrant. I've heard wonderful performances from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Baroque, and the Handel and Haydn Society in just the past few weeks alone.

But we don't have anything like Chanticleer. No, my friends, we don't.

I confess I was kind of speechless after "In Time Of . . .," their Celebrity Series performance last Sunday at Jordan Hall. Actually, scratch that - you know me - I couldn't stop talking.

Because I had never encountered a vocal group with this level of technique - that is, the very highest level of technique - with an adventurous sense of programming to match it. In musical (and intellectual) terms, Chanticleer reminded me a bit of Jane Ring Frank's late, lamented Boston Secession; they have the same smarts, and the same sense of fun. But even Frank's group, wonderful as it was, couldn't quite match the Chanticleer sound, which, if you care at all about choral singing - or just about the human voice and what it can do - you simply must hear before you die.

For the 12 men of Chanticleer probably come closer to encapsulating the full range of that collective voice than any group I know of. Its membership includes an almost hilariously deep bass, as well as a veritable posse of countertenor altos and sopranos, and just about every timbre and range in between. The quality of the voices is superb, but what's most striking is that under the music direction of Matthew Oltman, the ensemble's clarity and sense of interlocking pitch are utterly sure, and remarkable (if you're one of those few with perfect pitch, or one of the many more who claim it, these are your boys).

But wait, there's more: Chanticleer is also fascinated by the spatial aspect of choral singing; they're constantly breaking up into separate units, and fanning across the stage only to re-coalesce in some new configuration, which creates mysterious dynamics in their sound. A holy grail of choral singing is the creation of a kind of surround-sound, a sonority that simply seems to exist, hanging (or even moving) in space independently of its singers. This is one of those effects that require live presence; you can't ape it with microphones and speakers (or perhaps you can, but of course it wouldn't be the same - it wouldn't mean the same). And I actually lost count of how many times Chanticleer pulled off this deeply-moving miracle.

And then, as I mentioned before, there's their programming, which, to put it bluntly, was kind of mind-boggling in the consistency of its quality. The group was originally formed to sing neglected Renaissance and medieval choral music, for which they popularized a pure-tone approach which has become the de facto standard for period performance. They're a bit less rigorous about that method these days - a slight vibrato crept into even some of the Renaissance pieces - but perhaps that's partly because their repertoire has expanded from Gregorian chant all the way to the current noodlings of millennial DJ Mason Bates. I was actually slightly disappointed in the work from Bates, but Chanticleer's choices from the modern and postmodern periods were almost uniformly stunning. Chen Yi's exquisite Spring Dreams, Steven Sametz's in time of (a hypnotic rendering of the ee cummings text posted below), and Carmen Cavallaro's ravishing El Grito were all simply wonderful, in startlingly various modes. In one amazing sequence, the group pulled together selections from three centuries - the seventh (Gregorian chant), sixteenth (Palestrina) and twentieth (Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur) - to create a kind of biography of sacred feeling through a thousand years of musical thought. And then there was the stark emotional contrast between the rollicking Agincourt Carol (a happy hymn to war) and Dufay's Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae (a piercing lament for its forgotten victims).

Add to that rich renditions of works from Gibbons and Calvisius, and an encore of favorites like “Shenandoah," Gershwin's “Summertime" (with an unbelievable performance from countertenor Cortez Mitchell), the spirituals “Sit Down Servant,” and “Plenty Good Room,” and the gospel number "Straight Street" (featuring some delicious low notes from bass Eric Alatorre), and you have a concert that I think very few in attendance will ever forget. Certainly I never will.