The Sacramento Choral Calendar
A Chanticleer Christmas - December 14, 2017
by Margaret Leigh
“Otherworldly harmonies.” “Breathtaking artistry.” “Wonderfully unified.” Thursday evening at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Chanticleer ushered in Christmas for an almost-capacity Sacramento audience with their characteristic blend of sophisticated and transparent sound, an unequaled interpretation of Renaissance polyphony and wondrously hushed singing. Known around the world as an “orchestra of voices,” Chanticleer has set the standard for professional classical male a cappella performance, particularly in early music—and the accolades have been non-stop.
Chanticleer will celebrate its 40th year in 2018 and was inducted in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame a decade ago. This legendary ensemble has covered a broad sphere of musical territory in their four decades, but at Christmastime they tend to program a well-loved, traditional and familiar line-up of repertoire largely consisting of chant, Renaissance, traditional American and European carols and a couple of spirituals for good measure. Every year the personnel is modified—never the same twelve singers—as these talented and highly trained musicians move on to pursue solo, recording and teaching careers. This season, six of the twelve singers are in their first, second or third seasons with Chanticleer. Eric Alatorre, the iconic bass with a celebrated 28-year career, is in his final season. His remarkable voice can produce prodigious, ancient-sounding reverberation and he will be missed.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
It is a tradition for Chanticleer to open their Christmas concerts in darkness with a candlelight procession of liturgical plainsong: “Christe Redemptor Omnium,” a 6th century traditional Vespers hymn, gently filled the room with crystal-clear diction and an exceptional, blended unison as these twelve men entered slowly from the rear of the cathedral. With closed eyes, it was not difficult to transport one’s self to a time long ago among robed monks entering solemnly in song for evening prayers. This was followed by Hassler’s “Verbum caro factum est” with high voices and low voices singing antiphonally—back and forth as if they were two choirs—gradually building from this polychoral style to imitative conversation and then escalating to a full ensemble sound to stress the text.
A little less than half of the two-hour concert consisted of Renaissance music, some by well known composers—Hassler, Sweelinck, Morales and Victoria—as well as a few works by those lesser known—Eustache du Caurroy, Pierre de Manchicourt, Cristóbal de Morales and Fr. Gerónimo González—a treat for early music enthusiasts. (Of the lesser known pieces, Caurroy’s short but exciting “Noël, Noël” caused this writer to make note on the to-do list for future reference.) The remainder of works included Poulenc’s ”Videntes Stellam,” Britten’s ”A Hymn to the Virgin,” several popular carols and a traditional Nigerian carol with percussion—all sung with Chanticleer’s characteristic, well-drilled restraint and precision with minimal interaction between singers. Perhaps less restraint on the Nigerian carol would have produced a more authentic African sound.
Those listeners intent on hearing Chanticleer’s signature ”Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl were not disappointed. It was technically perfect as usual, but for this listener, had the feeling of being on automatic pilot. “Coventry Carol,” a haunting and harmonically diverse arrangement by Jonathan Rathbone, was extraordinary. It began with an open medieval sound and progressed into 20th century dissonances, text painting the tragedy and horror of the infant’s fate.
The audience was composed of a wise, mature generation (65+) with just a handful of listeners—less than 5%—clearly under 40. This noticeable imbalance sparked conversation during intermission about the future of this style of concert and whether a change of presentation style would speak to the Gen-X and millennial age groups. In decades past it has been enough to let the music stand on its own, but with dying audiences and younger, participatory-oriented generations that embrace experiences that stimulate all of the senses, this writer is left wondering: How will Chanticleer bridge the gap?
Returning to the present moment, these words: otherworldly, breathtaking and unified, perfectly express the spirit of that cold December evening. The audience walked out having experienced, once again, the magic that is Chanticleer.
Margaret Leigh began reviewing music related events for three Bay Area newspapers in 1988 and currently writes for two professional magazine publications. She holds a Bachelor of Music in performance and a Master of Music in Choral Conducting.