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Chanticleer for Christmas


Last night in Jordan Hall the twelve men of Chanticleer brought seasonal cheer and radiant joy to the near-capacity Celebrity Series of Boston audience. In music spanning some six centuries they demonstrated their keen attention to detail, polished musicality, and ability to enliven a variety of musical genres.

’Tis the season for aural onslaught, and the familiarity of Christmas carols can breed if not contempt then most assuredly a curmudgeonly, Scrooge-like spirit — especially when the music is heard not for its own sake but as a soundtrack enticing us to commercial excesses. Popular forays into contemporary carol-writing can inspire the most murderous rage, as we wish reindeer had not trampled grandma but the composer (and, perhaps, the inventor of what is lumped together under the now-quaint heading of “elevator music”). Of course, tastes differ, and the onslaught of British choristers I enjoy hearing this time of year inspires others to equally great fits of unredeemable, merciless, rage. We all forget that the Nativity, one of the climaxes of a Christian liturgical year, inspired some of the finest compositions of Christendom over the centuries. Musical style and idiom changed, but the message of hope and redemption, rebirth during this dying time of year, did not. Last night Chanticleer effectively conveyed this message through the honest and heart-felt rendition of music that can, too often, sound trite, tired, trying.

The concert began with dimmed lights and opened stage doors. Offstage we heard the intoning of the plainchant “Veni et ostende” before Chanticleer came onstage and we saw the singers. This flowed into “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” and “O Rex gentium” as voices poured forth in swirling eddies of blended sound:  simplicity executed beautifully, with feeling. That level of performance continued in the contrapuntal motet “Nesciens mater” by Jean Mouton (c. 1459 – 1522), words ceding the foreground to the weave of harmonies and this “orchestra of voices.” This tracery of Adventual musical history set the stage for the rest of the concert, as the program order now abandoned chronological lines for an exploration of thematic points of intersection.

Much of the music was polyphonic (specifically Venetian), some polychoral, all engaging in a call and response across the years of normal time to create a celebration of a seamless Christmas. Jacob Handl (1550 – 1591), “Rorate cæli,” and Andrea Gabrieli (c.1533 – 1585), “Angelus pastores ait” reminded us of the wealth of sacred polyphony, while Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553), “Pastores dicite,” combined this artistic religious vein with folkloric or dance elements, as the musical message of Christmas escaped the bounds, and doors, of the church. This was most audible in the macaronic hymn, “In dulci jubilo,” where religious message combines with multiple languages and dance-music.  At the same time, Chanticleer brought a variety of colors and timbres to these works, as to all the compositions featured on this program, coupled with a great use of the space as the men reconfigured themselves between pieces. Some pieces segued into one another, as Pärt’s “O Adonai” to the anonymous Spanish fourteenth century canon, “O Virgo splendens,” here realized in three part form.

A number of works oscillated between major and minor modalities as the composers navigated the tension between life and death, happiness and sorrow. Poulenc’s “O magnum mysterium,” Pärt’s “O Morgenstern,” and Tallis’ “The Town Lay Hushed” all used this oscillation to great dramatic effect. The Poulenc joined a calmly-held descant over the alternating modalities, conjoining peace and turmoil. The musical traditions of Russian Orthodoxy underpinned Alexander Gretchaninoff (1864 – 1956), “Svéte tihiy,” and Pärt’s “Bogoróditse Dévo” (in a timeless setting); the Gretchaninoff explored lush textures and harmonies in an intense, decadent style that included three climactic moments (two more than many in the audience expected).

Following intermission, many of the works were more familiar carols, some in new and interesting arrangements. Jan Sandström’s Swedish setting of Praetorius’s well-known tune in his “Det är en rose utsprungen” (1990) was one such example. Interspersed were less familiar gems, such as Franz Biebl (1906 – 2001), “Ave Maria,” which uses soloists and chorus to combine the earlier melodic style of chant with the fuller harmonies of mixed chorus. Choral arrangements by John Rutter (“Il est né le divin enfant”) and Joseph Jennings (especially “O Come, All Ye Faithful”) married familiar carols with the best of choral compositional traditions to make the old sound new – and in the latter example turning a simple song into a virtuosic showpiece. The evening concluded with an encore performance of “Silent Night,” the passing tones in this harmonization adding a touch of excitement to the stillness of this song.

A full program listing for this concert is available here.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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