Chanticleer showcases its versatile seasonal magic at Jordan Hall
Simply calling Friday night’s “A Chanticleer Christmas” was a billing of excessive modesty. This performance by the stalwart twelve-man vocal ensemble, a Celebrity Series presentation at Jordan Hall, could have been titled “Virtuosic Renaissance Settings.” Or “Great Vocal Challenges.”
Any marquee summary would find it hard to do justice to this tour-de-force a cappella evening. With selections that honored Chanticleer’s two past directors—Renaissance music for founder Louis Botto, and more contemporary settings, for his successor Joseph Jennings—Chanticleer provided a startling display of ensemble musicianship.
Chanticleer moved through various blocking schemes during the performance—letting some singers take center stage for solos, mingling voice ranges or sometimes separating them—but this was an ensemble effort, and blending to create one sound was the ultimate goal. They began offstage, the hall darkened, with Gregorian plainsong, which they melded with Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and then an eight-part French motet. By the time the lights came up, their spell was cast.
Chanticleer stuck to its earliest roots, mostly the Renaissance contrapuntal polyphony that Botto studied and created the group to explore, in the first half. Each setting grew in intensity. Standing together onstage, they nearly replicated the surround-sound antiphonal effect that Andrea Gabrieli’s Angelus pastores ait must have created in Venice’s San Marco cathedral. Several arrangements by Michael Praetorius, including an early macaronic (mixed language) amalgam of works by several composers, among them J.S. Bach, were characterized by unison sections that broke off into considerably detailed part-writing before veering back to simplicity.
The first half was not all early music, although its references were. They sang two selections from Arvo Pärt’s Seven Great Antiphons, including “O Morgenstern,” a four-part textual treatment that places two voices in minor and two voices in major keys, with overlapping rhythms, so that the dissonant tension gets hinted at, then mollified. Sung in the slowest possible tempo, the work left all the singers exposed, with long, delicate lines. As the voices broke up toward the end of phrases, it created a chilling, appealing fragility.
Francis Poulenc gets grouped in with adventurous contemporary French composers, but some of his vocal works are cast in traditional molds. His motet O magnum mysterium explores the virgin birth with a stunning soprano line—Chanticleer has three stellar sopranos, Casey Breves, Gregory Peebles and Kory Reid—that soared above the ensemble.
After intermission, they sang more populist fare, the hallmark of its years under the direction of Jennings, who retired in 2009. Jennings incorporated many traditional styles into Chanticleer’s repertory, including music in the robust Southern Baptist tradition, much of which he arranged himself. Medleys that included familiar holiday songs like Good King Wenceslas, Il est né le divin enfant, Star of Wonder and Adeste Fideles were given the Chanticleer treatment—adventurous, sometimes humorous, all dramatic and poised. It’s a tradition rooted in vocal freedom, but centered on outstanding technique.
A hushed encore of Silent Night eased the sold-out audience into the evening.
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