The hugely successful a cappella male chorus Chanticleer made a joyous return to Rockport Music at the Shalin Liu Performance Center on Sunday with trademark eclectic repertoire—stimulating and challenging in equal measure. Countertenors Cortez Mitchell, Gerrod Pagenkopf, Kory Reid, Bradley Sharpe, Logan Shields, and Adam Ward, tenors Brian Hinman, Matthew Mazzola, and Andrew Van Allsburg, and baritones and basses Andy Berry, Zachary Burgess, and Matthew Knickman, with Tim Keeler serving as Music Director ranged from the early Renaissance to a work commissioned earlier this year and covered numerous genres and styles. Individual singers gave interesting background information about the music and how they chose it, avoiding the superfluous and further engaging the listeners. They sang unfettered by masks while the audience was (from what I observed) uniformly masked.
Chanticleer opened with the most recent commission, a rather audacious choice since neither text nor music reveals its secrets easily; moreover its subject matter is public health guidelines, a potentially wearisome topic as we struggle to get past a lengthy pandemic. “close[r], now” is a musical setting by composer Ayanna Woods (b. 1992) of her own erasure poem based on a Los Angeles Times editorial of March 2020 explaining why performing arts institutions should “close now”. Woods uses a type of musical pointillism characterized by fragmented syllables and patterns of vocalizing through which words eventually emerge. There were, of course, enough sustained verbal phrases to display Chanticleer’s well-known satin-smooth blend and expert balances. The ending was a compelling and uplifting exhortation to “come back/ come back to life.” With virtually no pause the musicians then launched energetically into Monteverdi’s Lauda Jerusalem (Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem) from his Vespers of 1610. One marveled anew at the singers’ clean ensemble, unanimity of rhythm, and refreshing variety of dynamics (allowing imitative polyphony to come through clearly)—all without a conductor. The movement finished authoritatively with a resounding Gloria Patri.
Continuing the theme of a new day and fresh start, the motet O Radiant Dawn by Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959) employs a more consonant harmonic language than MacMillan typically writes in, perhaps in homage to earlier sacred music, though he sprinkles more “gently contemporary” harmonies throughout. A prominent expressive feature occurs in the grace note appoggiaturas, especially the two repeated sequences of “Come” (addressing the radiant dawn) in dramatic crescendo. An extended, beautiful Amen provided a luminous final resolution. The performers clearly illustrated the reasons for this work’s popularity.
We stepped back in time again for the Regina caeli setting of Vicente Lusitano (ca. 1520-ca. 1561). A composer previously unknown to me (as I suspect to nearly everyone in the audience), Lusitano was an African-Portuguese priest and musician. The text calls for a joyful celebration of Christ’s resurrection, thus continuing the theme of the previous pieces. Lusitano created accomplished counterpoint, and Chanticleer rendered it with equal skill. Their carefully thought-out pattern of dynamics illuminated the imitative writing one continually encounters in this work. The artists extended the revivification motif with a meditative account of Augusta Read Thomas’s “The Rewaking,” which sets a poem of William Carlos Williams. Their sensitive treatment of Thomas’s word-painting by lightening texture and rising pitch at the close (“and so by your love the very sun itself is revived”) provided an inspiring ending. This set closed by stepping still further back in time to the early Renaissance with another setting of Regina coeli by Alexander Agricola (1445-1506), another showcase of polyphonic devices and the ensemble’s deft handling of them.
Another seemingly unlikely mix of pieces from the 20th century were again united by a common subject, albeit a less clear-cut one here. Shifting the perspective slightly from the previous group, these works paid roughly equal attention to the tribulations we must undergo before emerging victorious. Two choruses of Lajos Bárdos (1899-1987)—Elmúlt a tél (The wild winter is over) and Dana-dana (Sing-song)—bracketed four brief Hungarian folk song settings by Béla Bartók, all sung in Hungarian. The musicians were, by turns, determined yet beguiling, sympathetic, cocky, delightfully daffy, authoritative yet facetious, and blisteringly brilliant. The unlikely group-ender was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem Music, set to music by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), also paying equal attention to the trials that precede victory—paralleling our experience of most of 2020 and 2021. The largely lyrical, fluent setting turned more powerfully dramatic at each stanza ending as Emerson juxtaposed fair and foul, dark, mean things and something that sings, and reached the apogee at the end: “But in the mud and scum of things/There alway, alway something sings!”
Chanticleer changed directions yet again after intermission, slipping comfortably into the lush jazz choral stylings of Gene Puerling’s arrangement of “On a Clear Day” (You Can See Forever), so lush, in fact, that at times they seemed to stretch the limits of tonality. Yet the harmonies, appropriately enough, remained crystal clear thanks to the group’s flawless intonation and minimal vibrato. One passage of contracting contrary-motion chords in particular caught my ear deliciously. After the weightier matters of the first half, “SUNRISE,” by the New York City collective MICHELLE, was a bit of breezy pop fun, complete with the percussion of soft maracas and finger-snapping and a sweet solo by tenor Matthew Mazzola. Following this, the Laudibus in sanctis by William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) did seem to come from left field, being a paean to God—based on Psalm 150—urging all on earth to praise God using a great array of musical instruments. Nonetheless, we were quickly caught up in the vigor and fervor of the performance, its near-continuous imitative counterpoint, and delectable offbeat rhythms. Byrd singles out one line of text (“let agile feet praise him in joyful dance”) for whirling triple meter in an otherwise duple-meter piece, and the artists indeed made it dance.
A group dealing with birds and their songs reminded us that Chanticleer takes its name from Geoffrey Chaucer’s clear-singing rooster in “The Canterbury Tales.” The second work of Augusta Read Thomas on the program set Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Bird” her punctual music brings. While I admired Thomas’s ingenuity in creating a variety of bird utterances (devolving at the end entirely into whistling), I found her setting rather at odds with the poem, whose intent doesn’t seem to include humor, yet we never questioned the full commitment of the performers to Thomas’s vision. The text of Clément Janequin’s Le chant des Oiseaux (Song of the Birds), however, has plentiful humor, mainly via anthropomorphizing our feathered friends to reflect on human foibles (as well as virtues). This showpiece is a close sibling to Janequin’s La guerre (War)—another Chanticleer specialty—both works showing the composer’s great imagination in creating vocal sound effects whether depicting battle or birds. (One wonders if the great ornithologist composer Olivier Messiaen knew this piece.) The singers added a great deal of choreography as well, depicting (I think) seven named species and others unnamed (or human named) strutting, waddling, squabbling, flapping wings, etc. Largely thanks to the interpretive license of the musicians’ gestures, birds did indeed become recognizable human types: fighter, dandy, smooth operator, etc. the ensemble members delivered a tour de force, never letting their considerable travels and interactions around the stage interfere with their accomplished performances. A 2020 commission from Steven Sametz (b. 1954) yielded “Birds of Paradise,” setting a poem by Christina Rossetti. As there are two lines in French from the Janequin’s text interpolated in the middle of this piece, Sametz clearly derived some inspiration from the earlier work, though his birdsong reproductions are almost entirely original. He also invented some glittering harmonies for “golden-winged” and “silver-winged” birds, and the “love-song” crooned attractively. The powerful ending consisted of multiple repetitions, in a crescendo, of “The Paradise of God.”
Counteracting the rapid cooling of an October evening by the ocean, the final number transported us to the tropics: Richard Evans’s “Journey to Recife,” as arranged by Chanticleer’s previous Music Director Joseph H. Jennings. Here too, many types of birds made appearances, though the Brazilian varieties were of course much more laid back in this sultry bossa nova. “And I know you would never want to go back to where you came from”, in the context of our desire to be free of COVID-19, had both literal and figurative meaning for the listeners. More plainly, the sensuous, seductive atmosphere created by the singers caused many of us, I’m sure, to wish the luscious piece could go on just a bit longer. Accordingly, the insistent standing ovation brought one encore: “Shenandoah,” as arranged by Marshall Bartholomew and James Erb. The aching longing, dreamy meditation, and warm expression the singers brought to their performance held the audience spellbound (and brought back my memories of 15-plus years ago, hearing Chanticleer give an identical performance before a rapt crowd in Symphony Hall). A musical anodyne such as this eliminated the need for any further encores. It is a pleasure to report that Chanticleer’s brilliance and adaptability to an astounding range of musical styles and periods remains beyond question.