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Men In Black
BBC CLASSICAL MUSIC MAGAZINE

September 22, 2008

As San Francisco-based male vocal ensemble Chanticleer celebrates its 30th anniversary Chloe Veltman finds out why its sound has composers queueing.

On a warm evening in May, a group of young men dressed in baggy shorts, trendy T-shirts and flip-flops sauntered into an upscale bar in San Luis Obispo. A hostess ushered the men to seats on the bar’s palm-fringed patio. They ordered drinks. Very soon, they were sitting chatting with a bunch of girls. Resembling surfers or graduate students, the men looked like they fit right into this laid-back, California beach town. It was hard to picture them doing anything else.

Yet only an hour earlier in the town’s ornately decorated, 18th century mission building across the street, these same men, clothed in sombre black button-down shirts, polished black shoes and sharply-pressed black slacks, had stood together in front of more than 500 enthralled listeners, singing long-forgotten hymns to the Virgin Mary. With pristine clarity and depth of feeling, they resurrected works by some of the greatest composers of the Mexican Baroque era, including songs by America’s answer to Handel, Manuel de Sumaya, that hadn’t been heard in more than 200 years. The 12 members of the internationally renowned, San Francisco-based male vocal ensemble Chanticleer took the audience on an engrossing musical journey into the past that night. Only when sitting in the bar after they had sung amidst candy-coloured lights and techno music was it possible to return fully to the present.

Chanticleer’s two-week pilgrimage along California’s legendary Camino Real included stops in eight mission cities including San Luis Obispo, San Francisco (where the group debuted on June 27, 1978) and Santa Cruz. Wedged between the New York premiere of a newly commissioned song cycle and an appearance with Bobby McFerrin in Washington DC, the Mission Road concerts formed the backbone of the ensemble’s busy 30th anniversary season. With an annual tour roster consists of around 100 concerts, stamina seems to be as integral a requirement for joining Chanticleer as vocal ability. In addition to performing regularly in the Bay Area, the ensemble travels to such venues as London’s Barbican Center, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. One of only very few full-time professional vocal ensembles in the US, Chanticleer rehearses four hours a day, five days a week. Its members spend ample hours cohabiting on buses and in hotels. “This job isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” says longtime Chanticleer bass Eric Alatorre. “You give up control over certain aspects of your life. This suits some people for longer periods of time than it does others. I still love the music and want to do this for as long as I can, though the travel gets a little wearying at times.”

As hectic as the group’s schedule seems, Chanticleer’s workload is cushy compared to what it once was. Back in the early 1980s, when the choir consisted of nine or ten talented part-timers led by the late musicologist and tenor Louis Botto, there was little time for singers to enjoy post-gig flirtations over cocktails with fans. “We were on the road for about nine months out of 12,” recalls Chanticleer’s music director Joe Jennings, who joined the group’s countertenor section in 1983, and became its music director soon thereafter. “One year, we did 180 concerts and hardly any of them were in San Francisco. The pattern in those early years was drive-sing-drive-sing-drive.”

Chanticleer’s decision in 1991 to create 12 full-time salaried positions vastly improved its members’ lives. Nevertheless, the ensemble’s lifestyle is as all-consuming as it ever was. Partly owing to the demands of singing with the choir, around 100 vocalists have passed through the organization over the years. Recently, however, the turnover has radically increased. In 2006, Jennings replaced six singers. Countertenor Jesse Antin, who joined Chanticleer at the age of 22 and left after five years to found his own vocal group, recalls the challenges of being part of the ensemble, when seven longtime members simultaneously departed in 2003. “When I started, it was easy for me to fit in because I had a guy who’d been singing with the group for ten years to my left and a veteran of eight years to my right,” says Antin. “When Joe brought in seven new singers it was hard to maintain the consistency of sound. The quality remained high but we had to re-find ourselves again as an ensemble.”

Executive Director Christine Bullin attributes the recent rash of comings and goings to singers’ changing priorities. “The current wave of 25-year-olds may not be as inclined to put their faith in an institution as the founding generations who signed up and let the chips fall where they may,” says Bullin. “Singers today eventually get fatigued with the road. They’ve seen their parents get let go from jobs. These are less stable times. They have ideas about what they want to do next.” Antin agrees. “When I joined, some people had been in the group for 15 years. Now singers don’t view being part of Chanticleer as the pinnacle of their careers; it’s a stepping stone to other things.” Besides founding their own choirs, ensemble members have moved in a variety of directions post-Chanticleer. Countertenors Ian Howell and Randall Wong have prestigious solo singing careers; Philip Wilder has become an arts consultant in New York.

Singers come and go. But audiences remain devoted to Chanticleer’s mesmerising sound, a timbre characterized by the ensemble’s six-member countertenor section as much as anything else. It’s what caused The New Yorker, in 2007, and The Washington Post, earlier this year, to declare Chanticleer, respectively, “the world’s reigning male chorus,” and “the reigning gods of the men's chorus world.” It’s why the choir’s latest Christmas album, Let It Snow, was the number one download on iTunes last December, and why Musical America voted Chanticleer ‘Ensemble of the Year 2008.’ “There’s a kind of translucency to the ensemble’s texture that allows you to hear the counterpoint that is at the heart of the music,” says San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic, Joshua Kosman, who has followed Chanticleer for 25 years. “The group doesn’t produce sound in big, weighty blocks like a “Hallelujah” chorus. Each of the 12 parts can be heard and has a distinctive character. The singers simultaneously enable us to picture the individual threads that make up the musical tapestry and the tapestry as a whole.”

The unique Chanticleer sound is also what attracts some of contemporary music’s leading composers to collaborate with the group. Though Chanticleer originally specialised in performing Renaissance and Mediaeval music, it has since branched out. Today, the choir’s repertoire features jazz and pop standards, Jennings’ trademark gospel arrangements, choral masterworks, rediscoveries of long-neglected compositions, and groundbreaking new commissioned pieces. “The group’s virtuosity and distinctive sound were particularly inspiring to me,” says the New York-based composer Douglas Cuomo, who wrote the ‘Kyrie’ section for the ensemble’s 2007 multi-cultural mass, And On Earth, Peace. “Because the members are all such good singers, I was able to write technically challenging parts and have confidence that they would make them sound the way I imagined them.” Composer Augusta Read Thomas, whose longstanding relationship with Chanticleer extends back to the whimsical 1992 song, “The Rub of Love,” adds: “The biggest challenge is writing a piece that’s worthy of the group’s greatness.”

Chen Yi, who has worked with the group since 1993, appreciates the ensemble’s discipline. According to Yi, the singers struggled to get the “primitive, raw sound” that the composer desired for her 1996 Chinese Myths Cantata, but they persevered to capture the power of the work’s accented notes and roughness of timbre. “The outcome was effective eventually after very hard work in rehearsals,” says Yi. While rehearsing the song cycle From the Path of Beauty, which Chanticleer premiered last March in San Francisco with the Shanghai String Quartet and will perform at the newly opened China National Theatre in Beijing next May, the group’s attention to detail amazed the composer. “They even asked me to email them my computer notated files so they could listen to the complicated pitches precisely at whatever speed they wanted for practice purposes,” Yi says.

Even when a composer isn’t able to attend rehearsals, Jennings and his vocalists are punctilious about realising his or her vision. Irish composer Michael McGlynn, another serial Chanticleer collaborator, held a meeting with Jennings and tenor Brian Hinman via Skype to hone the finer points of his ‘Agnus Dei.’ Hinman had been drafted to sing a big solo in the composer’s contribution to And On Earth, Peace. “There was some hilarity over Brian's pronunciation of the Irish language, but on the recording he is excellent,” says McGlynn. “Joe had many questions about the piece and how his singers would sing it. I don't often get questioned about why I have written something. But Joe is a very fine composer and arranger himself. It was obvious that I wouldn't get away with any ‘composer waffle’ with him.”

As much of an impression as the group leaves on composers, its effect on listeners is at least as great. From leggy southern Californian belles to earnest Austrian music-lovers, audiences can’t seem to get enough of the choir. When the UK’s King’s Singers visited Salzburg last spring, the Chanticleer sound was ringing in listeners’ ears, like the “clear singing” rooster in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from which the ensemble takes its name. “Chanticleer is a shining beacon of singing excellence,” says King’s Singers countertenor Robin Tyson. “When we passed through Salzburg on tour earlier this year, people at our concert were still talking about a Chanticleer concert a week previously.”

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