The glorious weather on Sunday afternoon, April 11, might have given pause to an audience headed to Jordan Hall for a lesser group, but Chanticleer’s superb reputation and long history with Boston audiences prevailed, and it is doubtful anyone felt it less sunny inside. We were treated to a wide-ranging feast of choral music, all of it dispensed with style, aplomb, world-class musicianship, and spot-on tuning.
“In time of….,” was the provocative title of the afternoon’s program, a journey through war and peace, love and fear, night and day, and so many other of the challenges life offers. The music led off with Orlando Gibbons, then Sethus Calvisius, Palestrina, plainchant, and the astounding brouhaha of Jannequin’s La Guerre (including evocations of cannons, trumpets, muskets, swords and other assorted “battle” sonorities, and written in 1528!). One knew from the first foot set on stage by this suave group that we were in for an “occasion,” with interesting remarks offered by selected singers before each group, sublime ensemble, radiant spirit and energy, and good humor, all offered by men who know exactly how to project the essence of whatever they sing.
With a group of this level, a few quibbles seem almost unnecessary or inappropriate, but at least for this listener, it seemed that the Gibbons would have benefited from less soprano vibrato. Perhaps the voices were warming up, but one expects at least a “pure,” if not absolutely “straight” tone from this ensemble, the more so because it appears that it can be turned on or off as desired. Choral directors will tell you that a singer who can do this is worth his or her weight in gold. Never mind. The brilliant tuning, especially of the final chord of several pieces, the breathtaking dynamics, the choreography of the choir which seems perfectly suited to sonic, visual and even spiritual considerations, the glory of unison singing in the plainsong, and much more—all lead to a transcendent experience of music-making which should never be taken for granted, nor was it with the audience on Sunday.
An arrangement of the famous 15th- century Agincourt Hymn was a highlight of the first half, as was the sequence of music begun by the “Veni sponsa Christi” plainchant, moving seamlessly to a setting by Palestrina of the same text, and then into the modern sound world of Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur. Again the vibrato in the soprano section occasionally appeared, but with such fine ensemble that it mattered only slightly. Ligeti’s Night and Day was a haunting vision of each, as well as the transition between them, and Chen Yi’s Spring Dreams gave the incomparable bass of Eric Alatorre several moments to shine. Steven Sametz’s “In time of,” (was this the chicken, or the egg?) settings of e.e. cummings poems, were to these ears sung perfectly, but were nonetheless a bit too long and monochromatic, especially in the context of the preceding music.
After intermission, our life journey moved into such diverse sound worlds as those of Irishman Michael McGlynn in a penetrating English and Latin setting of the familiar Agnus Dei text, San Franciscan Mason Bates’ Odyssey, and Manuel Sanchez Acosta’s warm and engaging love song “Paraiso Sonado,” which seemed harmonically luscious after the fascinating, varied and arcane journey we had taken since the interval. Several more Latin anthems led to three final offerings, including Chanticleer emeritus director Joseph Jennings’ rich arrangement of “Shenandoah”—there can’t have been a dry eye in the house; “Summertime,” featuring the stunning mezzo of Cortez Mitchell; and two spirituals sung together, “Sit Down Servant,” and “Plenty Good Room.” A single encore, Jennings’ arrangement of the gospel tune “Straight Street”, gave us one more chance to hear Alatorre’s vocal “contrabassoon:” stunning! Two friends on the way out said they’d ask for more featuring of this force of nature.
This is a group to be reckoned with, and while it is sometimes reminiscent of the well-known English group The King’s Singers, Chanticleer has carved its own significant and distinguished niche in the canon of world-class singing groups. If one word of caution were in order, it would be to avoid falling in the “gimmickry” trap, something we came close to on Sunday: with such skill and vocal virtuosity it can be a fine line between means and ends. But, who wants to quibble with singing as glorious as this? And they even greeted the audience out in the front lobby near Beethoven, who looked as though he was smiling down on these talented gentlemen and those of us lucky enough to have heard them.