Saturday, December 8, 2012

Chanticleer's polyphonic Christmas presents

The men of Chanticleer

An entire week has gone by since Chanticleer visited Celebrity Series, but I've been too distracted by shows with short runs to get around to throwing a few critical bouquets their way.

Of course critiquing Chanticleer is a bit oxymoronic - there's not much to critique; since the group's founding in San Francisco some thirty-five (!) years ago, it has slowly taken the world by storm, and now all but rules the male-chorus roost.  And for once, the mainstream take on the group has been accurate: it is an "orchestra of voices" - for Chanticleer's greatest achievement is its consistently gorgeous (and startlingly accurate) vocal polyphony.

What's polyphony?  It's a style of choral writing in which independent melodic lines weave against one another to form a ravishingly rich musical texture (polyphony reached its greatest pitch in the sacred music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which together form the core of Chanticleer's repertoire).  A polyphonic work should open as slowly and hypnotically as a flower  - and needless to say, a truly radiant bloom requires every petal be perfectly placed (a highly daunting vocal task).  And this is where Chanticleer is pretty much peerless.  The timbres of its members's voices are not only exquisitely matched to this material, but also to each other, and their intonation is stunningly secure, particularly given that in some of the works sung Friday night, just about every single member was carrying his own vocal line a cappella.  (Although it's when they swoop from soprano to bass lines and back that your jaw really drops.)

Actually, maybe there was a wobble or two in the opening plainsong (done beneath atmospheric lighting that briefly transformed Jordan Hall into the nave of a cathedral).  But once Chanticleer reached the familiar Veni, veni, Emmanuel, their singing had coalesced into a transporting, multi-foliate vocal rose. I confess I often felt leaps of emotion throughout the first half of the program, thanks to the intensity of its musical and spiritual rapture.  Certainly highlights were gorgeous renderings of Gabrieli's polychoral (that's when two mini-choruses face off) Angelus pastores ait, and Cristóbal de Morales' Pastores dicite, for which the group was arranged in a kind of Christmas star (Chanticleer's blocking is always intriguing, and sometimes - particularly when they move contrapuntally, while singing - produces startling sonic effects).

The group also excels at musical scholarship - this concert amounted to a fascinating tour of the length and  breadth of sacred vocal music, extending from perhaps 800 A.D. to the twentieth century, and covering more than one Christian church (there are a couple of them, you know).  We heard a thrilling version of Poulenc's ecstatic O magnum mysterium, for instance - and in an intriguing thematic gambit, the singers segued from Arvo Pärt's "O Adonai" from Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen to the 14th-century O Virgo splendens, effectively shifting from a masculine conception of the divine to a feminine one.

Should I bring up the group's apparent sexual orientation now?  I think I should. Of course I doubt everyone in this chorus is gay, but clearly that's their core identity.  Are you shocked?  You shouldn't be - honey, gay men have always run sacred music; the only question is whether they're in the closet or not. Being 'out,' of course, isn't perhaps an entirely unalloyed advantage - Chanticleer does sometimes beam with an amusing gay vanity that isn't quite what Christ had in mind, whatever Andrew Sullivan may think (but of course only because vanity itself isn't what Christ had in mind).

In other ways, however, questions of sexual identity do lead to intriguing juxtapositions in the group's repertoire, like the one cited above.  In brief, when Chanticleer shifts on a dime from "O Adonai" ("O, Father") to "O Virgo splendens" (basically, "O, Mother"), they are making a rather poignant statement that resonates, I think, from the Vatican to the Castro.  Not that they don't cover much of the rest of the globe (and many of its languages) in their selections.  I'd never heard any of Alexander Gretchaninoff's work from the Russian Orthodox tradition, but the throaty Svéte tihiy made me hungry for more.  There was also a lovely sampling from the English hymnal in the sweetly lilting Allelulya: A nyewe work.  And of course the Germans held their own, with gorgeous renderings of Prateorius and others; a suite of versions of In dulci jubilo (you may know it as "Good Christian Men, Rejoice") proved a swift, entertaining history lesson which concluded with a complex setting from Bach himself.

As you can tell, there were almost too many riches to catalogue in the concert's stunning first half.  Alas, after intermission the group turned to more popular carols, many of which date from after the nineteenth century, when Christmas music basically fell off a cliff (sorry, there's really nothing you can do with the likes of "Silent Night," not that Chanticleer didn't try).  Still, even here there were a few gems: "A Christmas Carol" from Charles Ives proved touchingly direct (and very un-Ives-like), and the traditional French carol, Il est né le divin enfant, made a lovely impression.  And you know, after so much transcendent musicianship, I was happy to sit through "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and a "Star of Wonder" medley.  After all - it's Christmas.


  1. "Gay men have always run sacred music?" Really? Qualify that.

    And I'm not sure whether it's worse that you're wrong about this ensemble's "apparent sexual orientation" or that you'd venture to weigh in on it at all in a synopsis of their Christmas concert. I certainly hope it's not something you do in reviewing the cast and musicians of every production or concert you see...

    A reviewer worth his salt must know that professional artists are not very likely to thrust sexuality into the spotlight usually reserved for talent, interpretation and performance, unless they're using the stage as a platform for some statement. I highly doubt that's what Chanticleer was trying to do in a Christmas concert in Boston. If you're trying to broadcast your sexuality with your blog, please don't project it onto the artists you claim to be reviewing. These guys are too good at what they do to have their performances reduced to "amusing gay vanity."

    Perhaps you should strive for a little more objectivity the next time you try to recall a concert a week later. And get that gaydar checked.

  2. Really, you're too funny. I hate to think what you'd write if I hadn't penned a rave! I don't know if you're gay or not, but you're certainly an *ss. Oh, and btw, when I said "Gay men have always run sacred music," I specifically meant "Gay men have always run sacred music as a means of entrapping heterosexual men into their satanic rituals." Have fun with that in the closet.