Scott Cantrell Scott Cantrell The Dallas Morning News Classical Music Critic

Published: 29 October 2012 12:33 AM

Related For the life of me, I can’t remember choral singing more drop-dead, chills-down-the-back elegant than that offered Sunday night by the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer. At least some of the magic had to do with the sumptuous acoustics of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where the concert was sponsored by Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

Much of the great sacred choral repertory was composed in and for the large stone-vaulted cathedrals and monastic churches of Europe. It’s music for great spaces, often with prolonged reverberation. The only church in these parts that offers that grand-scale sound is Guadalupe, and the 12 men of Chanticleer played it for all it was worth.

The group has been around since 1978, although with lots of turnover over the years. Its present composition is three each of sopranos, altos, tenors and baritones-bass. Yes, those are adult men singing falsetto, with astonishing beauty and pliancy, up in soprano and alto registers. Top to bottom, the polish was almost superhuman.

Motets from the Renaissance and baroque periods were breathtaking in this acoustic. Sound was a physical presence in space, moving around, engaging and rebounding off walls, ceilings and columns. The elegant counterpoint of Palestrina’s “Ave maris stella” and the antiphonies and surprising harmonic crunches of the turn-of-the-18th-century Mexican composer Antonio de Salazar were lovingly tapered and twined. Vocal lines soared and settled.

Paradoxically, all 12 men blended impeccably in the unison plainsong verses alternating with Palestrina’s setting. The sound was of satiny sweetness.

Modern music was no less vividly and lovingly done. Irish composer Michael McGlynn’s haunting Amhrán na Gaoithe strung parallel lines over drones before evoking sea and wind in swirls and eddies of sound. Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi did similar things in his Canticum calamitatis maritimae, inspired by the 1994 wreck of the cruise ship MS Estonia. Adding muted exhalations and whispers, it mixed a Latin narration of the disaster with verses from Psalm 107 (“They that go down to the sea in ships …”)

Close-harmony arrangements of spirituals and gospel songs are a Chanticleer signature, and the concert ended with versions of “Deep River” (by Roy Ringwald), “The Old Ship Zion” and “Over My Head” (Gregory Peebles and Jace Wittig) and “Wade in the Water” (Joseph Jennings). All of these were done with great panache, and there were ringing solos from upper voices as well as the booming basso Eric Alatorre.