CHANTICLEER IN MUSIC (VERY) OLD, (VERY) NEW

CHANTICLEER IN MUSIC (VERY) OLD, (VERY) NEW

BERKELEY—With Chanticleer there’s a musical magic that sweeps you, right along with the perfection of harmonies and tuning.
The all-male local chorus of 12, unaccompanied throughout, remains a paragon to compare with the elite European groups. Having in the mix that rarest of all species, male sopranos, enables Chanticleer’s performing a much wider repertoire, including mixed choruses, or choirs of men and boys.

“Singing in Chanticleer is basically a young man’s game,” explains the new Music Director William Fred Scott, a veteran coming in from Atlanta and the Robert Shaw Chorale. And, he adds with a chuckle, “Fortunately, that’s not required for the music director!”

Between the 180 concerts a year, the high tessitura (vocal lines), and the heavy touring schedule, the regimen here is exhausting, requiring something comparable to sports-type conditioning.

The current fall program in the Bay Area this month is “Over the Moon,” a whimsical mix of very old and very new music—sacred, secular, romantic, in five different languages. Along with everything else, the Chanticleer guys are polyglots too.

The premiere this time comes from fast-rising composer Nico Muhly, 34, already tapped twice over to create new works for the Metropolitan Opera. Muhly’s “Three Poem Songs” is drawn from the nebulous Symbolist set of poems “Pierrot Lunaire” by Albert Giraud. These are visionary works, restless, full of unresolved enigmas. I liked Muhly’s fast-paced perpetual-motion effects, and wobbly vocal lines where the text “grows tipsy on the sacred liquor.” Muhly also sets the soprano voices like a high parasol while the others navigate their lines beneath. I find the Giraud-Muhly combination irresistible.

Other exotic novelties incuded “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls” by the Finnish Mäntyjärvi, with the vocal lines echoing the undualation of the waves. He found eloquence within a small compass, producing an exultant expressiveness.

In “Observer in the Magellanic Cloud,” Mason Bates offset a rhythm group against a lyrical group, singing in Maori language. It was another case of an urbane choral group taking up quasi-ethnic folk material, a challenge that the group loves to undertake, but with only middling success.

Composer Stephen Paulus, who died last year at 65, left us “The Lotus Lovers,” set in English translation to Chinese poems attributed to the fourth-century Chinese woman poet Tzu Yeh. The irregularity of the music, with stops and starts, reflected the irregularity of the four poems, ending with “Illusions,” a memorable song of the insomniac.

An array of polyphonic works, mostly in Latin from before 1600, placed Chanticleer on familiar ground, singing almost impeccably. But I’ll admit, there was one spot, among the 21 works showcased at Mt. Mark’s Church Sept. 23, where the singers sounded marginally muddy. Quite possibly no one, not even Chanticleer, is perfect.

If you came away hankering for a cappella music written in the three centuries after 1600, well, just wait for some future program by the group.

Chanticleer, 12-man a cappella chorus in “Over the Moon” program through Sept. 26: Santa Clara, Sacramento, Berkeley, San Francisco. For info: (415) 252-8589, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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