Chanticleer: The Alchemy of a Peak Experience

A trip through time and space with Chanticleer, one of the world's finest male choruses, was presented at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach on May 8, 2011 (also at Trinity Episcopal Church, Portsmouth on May 5). The warm glow of the experience opened my heart and transported my spirit to a frighteningly beautiful place. The group of twelve men, three sopranos, three altos, three tenors and three basses, gave a totally coordinated selection of Western choral music that began circa 700 A.D. to the present.

For the alchemy of turning a musical performance into a peak experience I had to set aside any personal skepticism and sense of irony to flow into the music of the program -“Out of this World: Setting of texts about earth, heaven, stars and other worlds beyond our own.” Every aspect of their polished performance was necessary: the choreography of bodies on stage, often in motion, sound coordinated in time with flawless precision while they seemed relaxed, high on their own experience of giving us the gift of music. At first the pieces were just well performed but the energy built with each historical period to a transcendent effect by the time we reached contemporary pieces.

The opening was Assumpta est Maria in cælum à 5 (Mary is taken up into heaven) by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594) with flowing smooth lines of rich beauty. They followed this with three settings of the text “Ave regina cælorum” (Hail, Queen of the Heavens). The first setting was plainsong from the vast repertoire of Roman Catholic chant developed roughly from A.D. 700-1300. Our favorite of the three was by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), second only to Victoria in popularity during the Spanish Renaissance. His motet draws on plainsong and is developed imitatively in all voices. Andrea Gabrieli's (1533-1585) setting is polychoral. He was at Venice's San Mark's Cathedral where he used the vast sound space in a homophonic, syllabic and sonorous style, by separating the singers into two choirs providing an antiphonal effect.

Next came two secular madrigals by Luca Marenzio (1553-1599) who was considered by his contemporaries the top Italian composer of his day. Al lume de le stelle (By the light of the stars) and Dissi a l'amata mia lucida stelle (I said to my beloved and bright star) is about the flame and joy and pain of love.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the revolutionary composer whose music spurred the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, was represented by two secular madrigals. Sfogava con le stelle is about a lovesick man venting his grief to the stars. Here Monteverdi is experimenting with a form of dramatic text delivery (used in his operas) which evolved into the recitative as we know it. His second madrigal, Ecco mormorar l'onde (Here the waves are murmuring), was a superb description of a dawn that comforts every burning heart.

Next came a 300 year jump through musical history to William Hawley (b.1950) setting of a Tasso (1544-1595) short lyric poem, Fuggi, fuggi dolor, asking that sorrow flee now that my beloved approaches. It was followed by Stelle, vostra mercé l'eccelse sfere, a setting of a sixteenth-century Italian love sonnet by Mason Bates (b.1977) a young San Francisco composer and DJ.

Hymn to St. Cecilia with text by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten was given a delicate and luminous performance. Cecilia is the patron saint of all musicians and Auden's text is directed to his friend Britten who was struggling to come to terms with his musical gifts and his own homosexual nature. Britten met the challenge both in his music and in his life. Two Romantic songs closed the first section of the program. An die Sterne (To the Stars) was set by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) to a text by Friedrich Rüchert who also furnished the text set by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I have become lost to the world).

After intermission the men of Chanticleer walked on stage in single file and arranged themselves in two groups and sang Island in Space composed by Kirke Mechem (b.1925). The opening plea is“Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace). Unique to 20th century humankind is experience of the earth from a heavenly perspective. The texts are by astronaut Rusty Schweickart (b.1935) and American poet Archibald Macleish (1892-1982). “To see the earth/as it truly is / small and blue and beautiful / in that eternal silence / where it floats / is to see ourselves / as riders on the Earth together / brothers.” Mechem, who settled permanently in San Francisco in 1963, communicates directly with performers and audience. The barrier of stage disappeared as the music drew us into a close embrace with the singers. The song closed as it began with “Dona nobis pacem.”

Chanticleer's latest commission is another selection composed by Mason Bates, Observer in the Magellanic Cloud. Bates captures a futuristic snapshot of two distant worlds briefly passing each other in celestial alignment. The scenario: Eons from now a lost satellite floating in space picks-up ancient light from Earth's distant past. The robotic observer witnesses Maori tribesmen chanting to a cluster of stars (the Magellanic Cloud) in space, evoking power for a bountiful harvest. The singers were divided into two groups, the satellite and the Maoris. We heard the ticking of the satellite, a rattle-stick, marching footfalls, and spiritual chanting, altogether creating an out of this world sound-scape.

The next selection, Past Life Melodies, by Sarah Hopkins (b.1958) opened with the group's full vocal power singing a melody that had haunted the composer for many years. The second melody grew out of her experience of living in Darwin, Australia where she was in contact with Aboriginal art and music. The third section uses harmonic overtones (throat singing). An earthy drone is sustained by the main body of the chorus while harmonic voices weave and dart like “golden threads” creating rich and subtle colors and communicating the heart and soul of the music. It had a profound effect.

Re-entry into the earth's atmosphere after a trip into space is always a major issue. Fortunately the closing section gave us a soft landing. Chanticleer has a tradition of commissioning choral arrangements of folk, jazz and popular songs. Out of this World, a jazzy standard by Harold Arlen, was arranged by Steve Barnett. Lost in the Stars by Kurt Weill was arranged by Gene Puerling who also arranged for The Hi Lo's and Manhattan Transfer. Change the World by Sims and Kennedy was popularized by Eric Clapton. We heard an arrangement by a Latvian women's a cappella group popular in Europe. Cells Planets by indie rocker Erika Lloyd is equally comfortable in the world of classical or popular music.

Three spirituals arranged by Chanticleer's retired conductor, countertenor Joseph Jennings, My Lord, What a Morning, Walk in Jerusalem and All Night, All Day, finished the program.

The men of Chanticleer have the power and precision to do anything they wish. The beautiful layered lines achieved magic. Solid gold!

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