A sold-out Baldwin Auditorium audience greeted Chanticleer's first of twenty-one performances of its Christmas-music concert; working its way north and west from the Duke University campus, the Grammy-winning a capella men's chorus will return to its California home base for a December 10 appearance, with more to follow.
Because the group sang twenty-six works plus an encore, to comment on each work's performance would make this review longer than space allows. Instead, some general observations with a few specific references to particular works are in order.
These twelve musicians (six countertenors, three tenors, three baritone/bass) sing, as the Biblical passage suggests, "with the spirit and the understanding also." They are vocally fluent in widely-ranging musical styles from plainsong to our own time, including a new work by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi which Chanticleer is premiering in their 2016-2017 season. Their blend, intonation, and diction are little short of perfection. In this program, their Latin, Italian, German, English, French, Spanish, Swedish, and Catalan were superb, with no conversational elision of words to create lack of clarity.
Beginning the opening plainsong "A solis ortus cardine" offstage in the darkened hall, the singers processed slowly into their places for the ensuing Latin motets by William Byrd and Giovanni Maria Nanino. After most works, the group moved into a different formation for the following music, depending on its voicings; pitches were given by one singer who used a tuning fork as his reference point. While there was no conductor, there was always a subtle beat given by one or another singer by moving his music folder in rhythm.
There was serenity: Palestrina's spiritual madrigal "Virgine bella" and David Willcocks' setting of the Polish carol "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly" (featuring a beautiful soprano-range solo by countertenor Cortez Mitchell). There was rhythmic excitement: the syncopated refrain "Reynos, vida, gloria y cielo" ("Kingdoms, life, glory, and heaven") of Francisco Guerrero's villancico carol "A un Niño Llorando" and Steven Sametz's "Gaudete!," one of many works commissioned by Chanticleer.
Vocal colors abounded, from antiphonal choruses, through a straightforward Robert Shaw/Alice Parker setting of "Masters in This Hall," to the atmospheric pastels of Joseph Jennings and Matthew Oltman's setting of "Noël nouvelet." Equally colorful were the varied stanzas of "Staffan var en stalledräng " ("Stephen was a stable boy"), the newly-commissioned work from Finnish translator and composer Mäntyjärvi, whose new music uses text and tune of a traditional Swedish Christmas carol. This is a beautiful and well-crafted carol which deserves frequent performances.
Perhaps only to prove their humanity, in a work which they know well, Chanticleer managed to have a brief intonation lapse in Franz Biebl's sumptuously-gorgeous "Ave Maria," which also needed more bass to balance its final chord. That said, this entire concert was a musical delight. The capacity crowd demanded an encore (despite the over-two-hour concert), and were treated to "Have Yourself a Merry, Merry Christmas!" Quod erat demonstrandum.
In a previous year's Vocal Ensemble Series, Duke Performances presented a smaller but equally fine men's group, Cantus. Readers may enjoy an informal performance of the Biebl "Ave Maria" sung by the combined groups in a chance encounter in Virginia when both ensembles were on tour ("So these two men’s choral groups walk into a bar...").