Chanticleer

A highlight of the calendar is the Christmas concert by Chanticleer—Chanticleer being the twelve-man a cappella group from San Francisco. They have a busy Christmas schedule, as their audiences love this tradition. I caught the concert on Friday night at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, on Park Avenue at Eighty-fourth Street.

As always, the group sang a variety of music, traversing eras, styles, and languages. They began with plainchant and moved on to Byrd, Palestrina, and other Renaissance composers.

Were they perfect in their execution? No—this group has known perfection, but not necessarily on Friday night. Still, they were very precise and coordinated, adhering to a high standard. I thought their early songs were a little monotonous. Anesthetizing. But what a lovely anesthesia, true.

When they got to a number by Hieronymus Praetorious—“Joseph, lieber Joseph mein”—they swung a little, which was nice.

Also on the program was a very popular piece by the late Sir John Taverner, “The Lamb” (which sets the Blake poem). It is deservedly popular, being a smart and affecting composition. From Chanticleer, it was very effective, and otherworldly.

After the Taverner came something curious: the Ave Maria by Franz Biebl. I say “curious” because this is Chanticleer’s traditional encore. I don’t believe I had ever seen it in the middle of their program. They sang it tenderly, inwardly—less emotionally than they do as an encore, when the piece caps an evening. This is understandable. Placement matters, in performance.

Still, the audience in the church went nuts, which was also understandable.

I was glad to make the acquaintance of Pierre Villette, a French composer who lived from 1926 to 1998. He was a classmate of another Pierre, Boulez, at the Paris Conservatory. Our program notes said that the two Pierres followed very different musical paths. They sure did. Boulez became the definition of modernism.

From Villette, Chanticleer sang “Hymn à la Vierge.” It is pleasant, refreshing, with a touch of French insouciance, and a surprisingly jazz-inflected ending.

A brand-new carol was supplied by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, a Finn. Its title translates to “Stephen Was a Stable Boy.” Let me note something about the composer’s last name: the second part of it is “Järvi,” the name of the family of conductors from Estonia.

And how about his carol? I feel the need to hear it again, before rendering judgment. But I can say this now: how interesting that Christmas carols are still being written. I suppose they always will be.

I was glad to hear from our own Charles Ives—America’s Charles Ives, who wrote a Christmas carol called, straightforwardly enough, “A Christmas Carol.” Chanticleer sang it in a choral arrangement by Paul C. Echols. Both the carol and the rendition were sweet.

Throughout the concert, individual members of the group had solo moments. Near the end, Cortez Mitchell, a countertenor, had one, briefly. I realize that Chanticleer is egalitarian. There are no stars in this group. But, if I had my way, Mitchell would be featured a bit more. I doubt other Chanticleer members would mind, and I know audiences wouldn’t. He is extraordinary.

In the final section of their program, Chanticleer sang a few carols from a list of eleven printed in our program booklet. One of the carols they sang was “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” in an arrangement by Joseph Jennings, their music director emeritus. This is a superb arrangement, showing the carol in its best light.

Over the years, I have remarked on the religious nature of a Chanticleer Christmas concert. They sing of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—the Christ child. This is a “Merry Christmas” concert, not a “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” concert. It is, indeed, a Christmas concert, rather than a winter program or some such thing.

Spoken remarks from Chanticleer members were very few. And those there were, were apt. One member, late in the evening, spoke of the baby Jesus as “love personified,” if I heard him correctly. His final words were “Merry Christmas.”

The last item on the official program was “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” And the encore? What, if not the Biebl Ave Maria? It turned out to be “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” introduced by Judy Garland in a movie from 1944, Meet Me in St. Louis. It was, I believe, the only secular number that Chanticleer sang. And it was beautiful.

And now, in a Scrooge moment—or possibly Grinch—let me list a few complaints.

The acoustics of St. Ignatius Loyola, I found fuzzy. Chanticleer did not fill the church properly, as far as I could tell. And the spoken words were quite hard to hear. Maybe a smaller space would be ideal (though St. Ignatius can hardly be beaten for beauty)?

A list of eleven carols, when you sing only a few, is something of a tease. An audience member is aware of what he is not getting. I would have liked to hear a carol by William Walton: “Make We Joy.” And that quick number in E minor, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

Unless my ears deceived me—unless I dozed off, which I doubt—there were no spirituals on this program. I had never heard Chanticleer do a Christmas concert without spirituals: “Mary Had a Baby” and the like. I missed them, keenly.

This concert was an hour and forty-five minutes. No intermission. That is longer than the longest Mahler symphony—the Third (though not as long as Act I of Götterdämmerung, true). I think that this is too long a sit, without intermission, on those hard pews.

Am I complaining that a Chanticleer Christmas concert was too long? Heaven forfend. It could have been longer, as far as I was concerned. But maybe with a break or two, for standing . . .

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