Robert Levine reviews our first Christmas  concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week on


Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; November 29, 2011

For most people, the day after Thanksgiving is the start of the Christmas season; for music-loving New Yorkers, however, it arrives when Chanticleer appears at the Met Museum. The twelve-man a capella group remains unique in its scope, taste and daring, and this season’s presentation at the Met is no exception. 
Entering while performing a Gregorian plainchant that breaks into overlapping phrases near the end, the acoustics changing as they pass through the audience, the men then launched into a Renaissance group – Victoria, Gabrieli and Guerrero: The first’s “O magnum mysterium” starting high in the sopranos is gentle and hypnotic; Gabrieli’s “Quem vidistis, pastores?” is a charming call-and-response with the choir separated into two groups, and Guerrero’s “Pastores loquebantur” changes rhythms and ends with a fine, busy “Alleluia.” A medieval English number was followed by two Basque villancicos probably by Mateo Flecha; their quirky beats and nonsense syllables (E la don don; Riu riu chiu) were accompanied by tambourine. 

Benjamin Britten’s handsome “A Hymn to the Virgin” was followed by a warm Polish lullaby arranged by Stephen Stucky with dark textures highlighted by a solo high voice. Contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s melancholy “Die Stimme des Kindes,” was filled with dusky tonal clusters. Launching into the joy of “God rest ye merry gentlemen” was almost a shock. The three familiar carols that followed – “The Holly and the Ivy,” “I wonder as I wander” (by John Jacob Niles) and “O Holy Night” sounded anything but hackneyed in Chanticleer’s arrangements, with bold harmonies, extremes of range and a truly weird, surprising suspension near the close of “Holly.” Tenor Matthew Curtis’s solo in “O holy night” was glorious, with the chorus’s polyphony surrounding his pure melody; soprano Casey Breves astounding, big high notes throughout were as thrilling as they were unexpected. A trio of carols in the Southern Baptist vocal tradition were fascinating and exotic, with alto Cortez Mitchell (sounding very much like a soprano to my ears) and basso profundo Eric Alatorre almost walking away with the show. A stunning encore of an “Ave Maria” brought the peace and joy of the season full circle. 

With their flawless pitch, great spirit and wide-spread musical curiosity, Chanticleer is America’s a capella pride and joy. 

Robert Levine