THE SPIRIT SINGS AT CHANTICLEER

THE SPIRIT SINGS AT CHANTICLEER

Nothing charges up your Christmas spirit more successfully than Chanticleer’s Christmas concerts.

Heard it before? No matter. Most of the sacred repertory is new annually, spanning a millennium or more. Text languages? Nothing special—just eight of ’em a night this year.

Revolutionary 16th-century composers helped save the day for us, more than once. This time one motet featured the Englishman William Byrd, who adroitly continued writing sacred music and—-somehow——avoiding execution in the bloody Reformation battles going on outside his door.

Then a madrigal by Palestrina, who “saved” western music when Papal decrees came out against the prevalent extra-florid choral music. Like a worker trimming the excess branches of a fir tree, Palestrina streamlined the polyphonic process and produced clearer, more intelligible lines that met with favor and inspired countless followers, pointing the road toward the radically different Baroque period.

Chanticleer hurdles all the centuries with its dozen male singers ranging from soprano to bass, all without instrumental accompaniment, a feat akin to piloting a boat blind-folded. As they are virtuoso professionals, they manage to stay securely on pitch. Quite amazing!

It’s not easy, singing unaccompanied, without conductor, especially in demanding works like Steven Sametz’ Medieval update ”Gaudete!” with its “misplaced” rhythms of five beats to the measure. Or managing the Swedish in the new reworking of an oldie, “Stephen Was a Stable Boy” by the Finn Jaakko Mantyjarvi, 53. And unlike some far more eminent San Francisco choruses, this one sounds out every syllable in a piece like Palestrina’s “Vergina bella.” Zounds!

Notable soloists pop up, like the vigorous, bearded countertenor Adam Ward before the group in Guerrero’s very danceable Spanish villancico carol “A un nino llorando.” And, unique to our choral groups, there are some three male sopranos helping broaden the repertoire to include mixed chorus as well as the old English choirs of men and boys. But these pros ain’t no boys!

Running from plainchant to familiar modern songs and spirituals, the tour repertory under Music Director William Fred Scott amazes. Yes, it did include the signature selection, “Ave Maria” by the obscure Bavarian Franz Biebl (1906-2001), a rich gem with three antiphonal voices pitted against the rest. And created by a rare, inspired composer none of whose works achieved this much resonance.

Chanticleer all-male professional touring chorus of 12, Christmas concert heard Dec. 23 at St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco. For info: go online.

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