There are fewer outlets for reviewers in the Bay Area than there used to be. We are always happy to see veteran critic Paul Hertelendy at our concerts, reviewing for Classical Voice.
CHANTICLEER'S IMMACULATELY WRAPPED CHRISTMAS PACKAGE
The Daring Chorus Is Like a Trapeze Act without Safety Net
<> By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Dec. 15-22, 2011
Vol. 14, No. 31
STANFORD—The surest sign of impending Christmas is Chanticleer back home in the Bay Area with its seasonal program combining favorites and unfamiliar classics, ranking annually among the most inspiring such December programs, regardless of medium.
It’s a spiffy vocal group, as formally polished as a Buckingham Palace changing of the guard. And its sonorities are simply out of this world.
In the latest reprise, 1,200 devotees were packed into Memorial Church Dec. 12 for Chanticleer’s latest virtuoso display of 12 male voices, unaccompanied, singing in five languages, four octaves and a variety of keys. The group’s inclusion of three (rare) male sopranos enables a broad repertoire, not only of mixed voices, but also of choirs of men and boys as prevailed in churches of the renaissance and baroque periods.
The voices are rich, warm, and thoroughly professional, moving from an ancient plainsong solemnly chanted by candlelight all the way to rousing spirituals. Like the university’s stellar football team, Chanticleer uses many formations, fundamentally employing semi-circles allowing eye contact and close coordination between the singers, who never use a conductor out front.
Which is something akin to a highwire act without a safety net. It's a chorus that dares to take chances—and gets away with it.
So the chorus also brings on an element of edgy excitement—will they waver off pitch? Will they miss a cue? Will their hair be ever so slightly tussled?
Their prowess this time bordered on the miraculous, as Music Director Matt Oltman had resigned to take a college job, leaving the group hustling back into action with not one but two interim music directors:.Jace Wittig and, for this Christmas-program series only, the prominent veteran Dale Warland. Neither of whom even appeared, even to take a bow, before the highly appreciative audience.
If there’s a caveat, it’s the ensemble’s leaving most of the consonants back home in caressing those rotund vowels, much like the S.F. Symphony Chorus up the freeway. The sonics are shimmeringly beautiful, but trying to follow the printed text is agonizingly difficult.
Some new works popped up, the most challenging a carol done in the original Polish, “Lullaby, Jesus, My Pearl,” with its lilting alliteration of lullaby/lily. Another solemn opus, “Ein schlafendes Kind,” was the modern Finn Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's solemn Nativity entry, in German, with those tricky ü’s pronounced about as well as you might after a glass or two of wine.
The golden age of 16th-century polyphony entered with two exquisite (and musically challenging) Latin selections by the Spaniards Victoria and Guerrero. Rhythmic 19th-century American hymnody arose in “The Babe of Bethlehem” and “Star in the East.” A “Salve Regina” to the Virgin by the 20th-century Frenchman Alfred Desenclos was an ardent hymn of worship, slimming down to a sustained closing sonority to symbolize the purity of Mary.
At the end, the familiar signature piece, Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” in caressing verse/refrain harmonics for double chorus, plus rousing spirituals arranged by the former music director (and for long the sole African-American in the group), Joseph Jennings: “Everywhere I Go,” “Oh, What a Pretty Little Baby,” and "Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child.”