Over the years, Chanticleer founder Louis Botto was often asked if, at that first convening of singers around a dining room table in San Francisco he had any idea it would become what it is today. He would usually answer, “yes,” with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye. As a graduate student in musicology, Louis found it odd that much of the repertoire he was studying–vocal music of the medieval and Renaissance periods–was not being performed. He decided to form a group to sing this neglected repertoire, using only male voices, as was the tradition in most churches during the Renaissance. Louis turned to members of choirs in which he sang, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, asking if they might be interested in this endeavor. Nine members were selected, including Louis (who sang tenor), and rehearsals began for their debut performance.
One of the founding members, baritone Charlie Erikson, was in the midst of reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. To name the group, he suggested Chanticleer, the name of the “clear singing” rooster in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. [Chaucer had actually borrowed the name from the ancient
French tale, Renard the Fox; it is a combination of the French words chanter (“to sing”) and clair (“clear”).] Everyone approved this choice, and Chanticleer debuted on June 27, 1978 before a capacity audience at San Francisco’s historic Old Mission Dolores. The program featured works by composers that would become staples of the ensemble’s repertoire over the years: Byrd, Isaac, Ockeghem, Morales, Morley, Dufay, and Josquin. Buoyed by their success, they agreed to continue rehearsing with the goal of performing a new concert approximately every four months.
Louis was always concerned that there were not enough career positions available to choral singers and he decided early on that Chanticleer should provide full-time, salaried employment for its members. This was not an easily attainable goal and in fact was not realized until 1991. The group’s early years were marked by long, arduous tours traveling by van, often for eight to ten weeks and dozens of concerts in a row in as many cities. The group earned little money in those days. Louis, a gourmet chef, often bragged that he could make dinner for all of the members of Chanticleer for less than $50, and he frequently did so, cooking in their tiny motel “kitchenettes.” Conditions gradually improved, but those early days in the van are fondly remembered.
Chanticleer’s first tours covered every state in the union. International recognition came in 1984 when the ensemble performed a Mass at the International Josquin Symposium held in Belgium. Chanticleer was invited to replace a last-minute cancellation by another group, which required the Mass to be rehearsed on the plane! Today, Chanticleer tours biannually to Europe’s most prestigious concert halls, including the Musikverein in Vienna, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Prague’s Rudolfinum, Budapest’s Bela Bartok Hall, among others. Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have offered concerts regularly, and in 2009 Chanticleer made its debut in the People’s Republic of China.
In those early years, Chanticleer was the beneficiary of good luck and good friends. It could not have succeeded in those early years through hard work alone. In 1980, the group participated in the Festival of Masses, a large choral festival held in San Francisco with the legendary Robert Shaw serving as Festival Conductor. Chanticleer performed a solo concert of three complete masses: one in plainchant and polyphonic settings by Dufay and Byrd. Mr. Shaw attended the performance and told the group “it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.” Louis, ever the entrepreneur, wrote down the Maestro’s statement and asked him to sign it the next day. He did so, with one addition: stating that it was one of the most beautiful musical experiences of his life.
More than 100 men have sung in the ensemble each leaving an individual legacy. In what was to be a defining moment in 1983, Joseph Jennings joined the group as a countertenor. His talents quickly led him to be named Music Director, a post he held until 2008. His legacy is far-reaching, and includes a wealth of gospel and jazz arrangements, as well as a long list of works commissioned by Chanticleer under his direction.
It was obvious that recording would increase the ensemble’s exposure, but difficult to find a label willing to venture into the varied repertoire that the group performed. In 1987, with its tenth anniversary approaching, Chanticleer decided to create an independent label to release its first CD, and Chanticleer Records was born. The risk paid off: the ensemble released a total of ten discs over a period of only six years. These recordings were successful enough that in 1994, Teldec signed Chanticleer to an exclusive recording contract, which lasted until 2008. Teldec recognized the appeal of Chanticleer’s diverse repertoire, making the CD’s available in more than 60 countries, and vastly increasing Chanticleer’s name recognition internationally. Colors of Love, Chanticleer’s 1999 release devoted to contemporary choral works, won the GRAMMY® Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance (With or Without a Conductor.) Lamentations and Praises won two GRAMMY® awards in 2001.
From time to time Chanticleer collaborates with other artists. In close collaboration with musicologist Craig Russell, Chanticleer has performed and recorded three programs of unknown works by 18th-century Mexican composers Manuel de Zumaya and Ignacio de Jerusalem with a period-instrument orchestra (Mexican Baroque, Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Mission Road). Chanticleer presented a fully staged opera by Benjamin Britten, Curlew River, to critical acclaim, a musical play about Hildegard Von Bingen, and dramatic work by Sir John Tavener entitled Lamentations and Praises. Chanticleer has performed with Frederica Von Stade, Al Jarreau, Garrison Keillor, the Shanghai Quartet, as well as the New York, San Francisco, and St. Paul orchestras.
Chanticleer has commissioned over 70 composers who have written over 90 pieces premiered by the group.
Its education program was recognized in 2010 with the Chorus America Education and Outreach Award, and serves over 5000 students every year in a sequence of programs supervised by a full-time Education Director.
Chanticleer has had the opportunity to sing in some of the most beautiful concert halls and churches in the world. But the group has also sung in a barn in Canada, a roofless church in the former East Germany, a gymnasium in Sweden, and in Central Park with the New York Philharmonic. No matter where the group travels, Chanticleer has become a “polished performing machine that … could fairly be called Botto’s miracle” (The Wall Street Journal). Louis should be proud.