I heard *A Chanticleer Christmas* at St Ignatius Loyola on December 4, 2022. They're a 12-voice all-male singing group that I've heard probably close to 15, back to the 90s. They run the whole gamut from soprano to bass. They're amazing.
This was the fourth time I'd heard them do a Christmas concert at St. Ig's and each time it starts the same way, with the lights going off and the men coming in from the back of the church singing a chant in unison. This is followed by a Renaissance piece, usually related to the chant. In this case the chant was "Al jorn del judici" and the Renaissance piece was by a Spanish composer I hadn't heard of, Bartolomé Cárceres. It had some striking and bizarre shifts in harmony, it was thrilling. I was totally covered in chills, something that doesn't happen very often. I should mention that the solo line in the opening chant was sung by baritone Matthew Knickman, who has such a gorgeous voice and was super tasty in the Moorish decorations in the vocal line.
The final piece in the opening set, by Orlande de Lassus, had a wonderful sweep and feeling of momentum. The whole set had a brilliant sense of progression, like chapters in a book, each chapter furthering the story.
A set of Spanish villancicos had an infectious joy and buoyancy. The first piece, "A un niño llorando" byu Francisco Guerrero, had two contrasting counter tenor solos, one sweet and angelic, the other more earthy. The fun of this set was heightened by the tasteful use of tambourine in the last two pieces, capped off with the well-known "Ríu ríu chíu."
The next piece, "El noi de la mare" arranged by Enrique Ribó, had some fabulous extended harmonies, my favorite thing. Why have just three notes in a chord when you can have five, six, seven, eight? There's no extra charge. They followed this up with a surprisingly goofy arrangement (by Tim Keeler, music director of Chanticleer) of "Fum, fum, fum." It's nice to hear a too-familiar Christmas classic in a new jazzy setting.
Next, a short piece by Arvo Pärt, "Bogoróditse Djévo." It was unusually kinetic and harmonically grounded for Pärt. Then a piece I've heard them perform many, many times, something that might be their signature piece, the Franz Biebl "Ave Maria." I will never tire of them singing it, it's a slice of heaven.
Here they are singing it at the Met Museum (just down the street) a number of years ago:
Maybe it's just because it came after the Biebl but I though "I saw three ships" was annoying. OK, on Christmas day in the morning, I get it, enough already. I think it would have been better to start the set with the following piece, "Gabriel's message." It would have been a smoother transition from the Biebl. The Charles Wood and Adam Ward arrangement of "Ding dong merrily on high" was a treat - - it started with the familiar version and then peeled off into something daring and inventive.
"Lo, He slumbers in his manger" was lovely but maybe a little too slow and goopy. "Walking in the air" started with a surprising solo by Logan Shields. I thought I had identified him as the bass with the luscious, dark chocolate sound so imagine my surprise when he opened his mouth and out came this high, pure, boy soprano sound. Knock me ovah with a feathah.
I was so tickled to see "Merry Christmas, darling" on the program, it made my heart leap. But I wasn't so taken with their performance - - it was a literal translation of the Carpenters arrangement but that only served to point out that the guy singing the solo, countertenor Bradley Sharpe, great though he was, was no Karen Carpenter.
They did a rather abstract arrangement (by Amanda Taylor) or "O come all ye faithful." At first I thought it was a little too tricked out but it won me over. For the record, I first heard that expression "tricked out" on Project Runway, used by Nina Garcia to describe a jacket with too many zippers and gewgaws. Thank you, Miss Garcia.
The final set of African-American spirituals predictably made me a little uneasy. The group is more racially diverse than they used to be (seven of the twelve are what I'd describe as "white dudes") but watching a group of guys in white tie and tails, singing these pieces after a concert of Renaissance pieces and the like, it's a little incongruous. The highlight of the set was the solo trio opening "Sweet little Jesus boy" (arranged by Joseph Jennings), sung with clean pealing chords but with a gospel flavor. That worked, that felt authentic.
Their encore was "The Christmas song." Lovely and gentle.