So picture-perfect was the weather on an idyllic Friday that many thousands of motorists took to the roads, and thus delayed, I missed the beginning Chanticleer’s concert in Rockport, where the 12-man vocal ensemble, one of our nation’s musical treasures, gave two performances at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Though originally founded as a Renaissance choir, the group soon established a reputation as brilliant musical chameleons, performing compellingly in a dazzling and eclectic array of styles, periods, and languages.
I must air one grievance at the outset. I have not deliberately omitted the names of soloists; I was simply unable to cite them due to their absence from the program book. Perhaps the chief glory of Chanticleer is that every individual can be marvelous soloist while also blending to supreme effect. Each should be celebrated in both capacities.
For his Trois chansons Maurice Ravel wrote both texts and music, proving himself a somewhat more successful poet than his contemporary, Claude Debussy. Chanticleer proved gifted storytellers throughout the set. In the first song, the title character, Nicolette, was successively playful, frightened, sore of heart, and finally, happy to have her affections bought. Her suitors also were vividly portrayed: a growling, bristly old wolf, a handsome young page, and a fat, smelly old nobleman (in Ravel’s day we can assume there were no PC police to decry age stereotyping). These songs were written during World War I, and the middle one, “Three Lovely Birds of Paradise,” is the restrained lament of a young woman whose beloved has gone off to war. The performers gave her unruffled external calm but still conveyed the profound longing and pain beneath her surface—a most deliberately contained and beautiful account. Ravel returns to cynical wit in “Roundelay.” Old women and old men warn young women and young men, respectively, not to venture into the woods of Ormonde which contain every conceivable type of bogeyman and bugaboo. When male and female versions of these are mentioned, the list extends to 55 different mythological creatures! One hardly needs mention that this song requires feats of verbal and musical virtuosity. It is noteworthy that these songs were the only music on the program for which Chanticleer used printed music, yet even in “Roundelay” they hardly ever glanced at it, making much more eye contact among themselves. The brisk tempo slows when the young people respond to their stuffy elders (yes, more age stereotyping), saying none of the bogeymen remain in the woods. While the young folk rehash most of the list of wicked creatures, male and female, which have been frightened away by “ill-advised old women and old men,” the tempo accelerates back to the original one or faster still. The implication, of course, is the young people have already been to the woods to seek out these debauched beings—and come away disappointed. The musical and verbal skills of Chanticleer here were hair-raising as they tossed off exotic French words with unanimity of utterance; paced the acceleration in perfect synchronization; and maintained attractive tone up to and including the sopranos’ climactic high A, held for four measures. The concluding glissando up to the same high A perfectly capped the song like a burst of laughter.
Samuel Barber was exceptionally sensitive to texts, whether setting them for solo singer or chorus. In Emily Dickinson’s anodyne “Let Down the Bars, O Death” he found a congenial medium to create a particularly beautiful work, largely tenderly comforting though including passages of heightened fervor and drama. Chanticleer creatively approached it in the manner of a Renaissance motet, eliminating vibrato while including frequent messe di voce, and thus demonstrated that straight tone need not be equivalent to ethereality and monastic chastity. Another advantage to this approach was that Barber’s lovely harmonies emerged with crystalline clarity.
“Wait” Fantasy (a 2013 Chanticleer commission) is the product of many minds: arranger Steve Hackman takes “Wait” by French electronica band M83 as a point of departure and adds original material. Similarly, the Emily Dickinson poem “I sing to use the Waiting” is added piecemeal to the work of, to be kind, lesser poets. But any irritation initially felt by Dickinson devotees must soon have been subsumed by the fine musical setting and a performance of beauty and powerful conviction. Though the unifying motif throughout this “epic choral fantasy” is the phrase “no time,” the work is actually an ode to singing as a soul-enriching use of time even as Death (here again the comforter) draws near. And who better to make this case than Chanticleer?
After several works of increasing musical and literary complexity, our palates were refreshed by “Flower of Beauty” by John Clements, setting a poem by Sydney Bell. A young man reflects on his betrothed, comparing her favorably to many aspects of nature. Clements’ sublime music seems entirely at home in the late 19th-century English part-song genre though in fact it was composed as recently as 1960. Chanticleer’s limpid performance was simple and loving, in the manner of the far more innocent Victorian era. And it was a moment of unforgettable synchronicity to listen to them sing, “More dear to me her little head than earth or sky or sea!” while beyond the artists were the last remnants of a gorgeous sunset encompassing earth, sky, and sea.
Two folksongs followed. The 15th-century French L’amour de moy, arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, evokes various flowers in garden and meadow along with a singing nightingale. Reminding us that the original song dated from a period before these items became the all too common currency of aspiring romantic poets everywhere, Chanticleer gave us another warm, direct rendition with charm and finesse. The second, far less innocent, is a 19th-century Russian tune, arranged by Constantine Shvedoff: “Oh, how full, how full is my basket.” A traveling salesman hawks his goods to a prospective female customer but advises her the ideal way to display all his wares to her is in a foggy rye field at night. As the peddler, the singers made a straightforward first pitch without any subtext (it wasn’t night yet!), but where the young woman expresses interest, they became perceptibly more exuberant. The two do meet at night in the rye field: “Only the dark night knows the agreement they made. Straighten up, tall rye, and loyally keep their secret.” Here the pianissimo staccato tiptoeing around was quite amusing; a long acceleration to the end, capped by a wolf-whistle, made it clear that more than mere commerce had happened.
Tackling a radically different style, Chanticleer then gave us the bossa nova classic Chega de Saudade (No More Blues) by Antonio Carlos Jobim, as arranged by Jorge Calandrelli. The luscious performance was immersed in the trademark sun-dappled sensuality of Jobim that easily transports one to Ipanema–or the summer beach of one’s choice.
The Johnny Cash song “Ring of Fire” followed. Cleverly arranged by Michael McGlynn it spoke in a style far from that of its creators, June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. Still, it paid tribute to Johnny by giving an extended solo to the deepest bass, who provided both solo melody and harmonic foundation. The Chanticleer bass, however, likely went lower than Johnny ever did. The first time the very lowest notes came, they caused some annoying snickers in the audience from those who think pitches that low must inevitably be intended for comic effect. Fortunately, in subsequent verses these listeners got it, or noticed belatedly that the bass’s gorgeously well-rounded and resonant vocal tone was far from comic. The accompanying voices were elegant and nuanced, as always.
Replacing the listed Cole Porter’s “So in Love” (sigh) was the Joni Mitchell tune “Both Sides Now,” arranged by Vince Peterson. Amid clouds of colorful harmonies, one tenor took the solo on verse 1 (“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now”), another on verse 2, and all three tenors in unison on verse 3. This was an uncommonly heartfelt and beautiful rendition of a song that, after nearly five decades, has become part of America’s musical landscape.
The concluding set of three spirituals was arranged in full-on gospel style by Chanticleer’s music director emeritus, Joseph Jennings. “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow” showcased the African-American member of the soprano section. It was akin to an intimate confession, rising at times to heightened expression before subsiding again. The soloist was a past master of the authentic gospel-style vocal ornamentation which I can somewhat liken to the fioriture of Frederic Chopin’s piano works. This led straight into “Sit Down, Servant,” featuring a baritone soloist equally gifted in the Southern Baptist/gospel style and versatile of register as well: he shifted instantaneously and effortlessly into counter tenor mode and back again at will. A full-octave upward glissando to somewhere around the top of the staff was especially breathtaking. Balancing the soloist’s vocal pyrotechnics, the other voices maintained a moderate tempo but were no less emotionally involved than the lead singer. However, while segueing into “Plenty Good Room,” the energy and excitement were bumped up a couple notches as the room seemed to turn into something like a Southern prayer meeting; Chanticleer propelled the celebration forward irresistibly, getting the audience to join in, clapping on the backbeats. At the emphatic ending the artists received the instant standing ovation they had so richly earned and were generous (considering they had also performed this program three hours earlier) to share one encore: Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance.” Once again, the combination of direct sincerity and superb singing was deeply moving.