Vocal Ensemble Review

Chanticleer: A Well Oiled Machine

March 19, 2002 - Chapel Hill, NC:

For anyone who has ever sung in an a cappella chorus or chamber ensemble, the perfect blend and balance of the 12 singers who make up Chanticleer is something to die for. Founded in 1974 as a Renaissance vocal ensemble for "original instruments," with male sopranos and altos instead of women, the group has expanded its repertory to include everything from popular and folksong arrangements and spirituals to commissioned works by contemporary composers. The Carolina Union Performing Arts Series audience got a healthy taste of that variety.

Chanticleer is at its most impressive with works with tight chromatic counterpoint slipping in and out of tone clusters with precision and panache. In their opening set, consisting of three works from their original repertory, Orlando Gibbons's "Oh Clap Your Hands," Henry Purcell's "Hear My Prayer, Oh Lord" and Giovanni Gabrieli's 12-part Gloria, it was the Purcell that was most impressive both technically and musically. Placed on the program as a "9/11" piece, the clashing dissonances of the piece, combined with an intense text, was certainly a fitting memorial. The Gabrieli, originally composed for two "opposing" choruses to take advantage of the acoustics of Venice's San Marco basilica, sounded absolutely desiccated in the dead acoustics of Memorial Hall. This was, incidentally, the final concert in Memorial before extensive renovation, and good riddance!

A set of three chansons for a cappella chorus by Francis Poulenc were new to us. Choppy and devoid of the composer's characteristic breezy style and lyricism, they suggested he may have had some discomfort with the medium. Pretty forgettable.

One of the evening's highlights and a Renaissance chestnut was Clément Janequin's La guerre . Along with his Le chant des oiseaux, which involves birdsong imitations, La guerre portrays a battle with the proverbial slings and arrows transformed into music. But the pièce de résistance of the evening was Brent Michael Davids's (b. 1959) Night Chant. A Minnesotan and member of the Mohican Nation, Davids composed a long choral piece for Chanticleer based on native ceremonial chant. The precision with which the group attacked the enormously intricate cross rhythms was simply dazzling. The singers also had to be their own percussion section with four members designated as gourd rattles.

It was an international evening with a piece by American composer Jackson Hill inspired by Buddhist chanting he had heard in Kyoto. Here was yet another way for the chorus to show the range of their repertory, but a little ersatz Japanese goes a long way no matter how polished the performanc. The second part of the concert was dominated by a set of arrangements of Central American songs, pleasant but lightweight.

Somehow the Duke and UNC Artists series always engage musicians who resort to cloyingly popular crowd pleasers. In this case, "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light brown Hair," "Weeping willow, Weep for Me," a Welsh lullaby and Irish drinking song preceded a medley of spirituals. Admittedly, these numbers got the heaviest applause, explaining why this stuff keeps showing up on programs, Ah well, vox populi! All in all, the program did more for showing off Chanticleer's versatility than the quality of the individual numbers. As the 12 seamlessly morphed their arrangement on stage between each number, we couldn't help feeling that there is something just too slick about them. Or maybe we're just snobs.