I heard Chanticleer in concert on 10/3/20. They were the last performers in the VOCES8 Live From London concert series that started in August. I’ve heard Chanticleer probably 12-15 times over the years, I’m a huge fan, and they were the group I was most looking forward to hearing in the series.
The concert was preceded by a short speech by their artistic director, Tim Keeler. He explained that the concert had been set up with rigorous protocols both in rehearsal and outside of rehearsal. Not the sort of disclaimer you’re used to hearing before a concert!
The concert wasn’t live and it wasn’t from London. It was recorded a few days before in San Francisco, their home base. It was a very large venue with the singers spaced quite far apart from each other. I felt the acoustic didn’t do them any favors, the sound was diffused and murky. I’m glad I’ve heard them as many times as I have, because I was able to process what I was hearing through the filter of what I know they sound like in a more flattering environment.
They opened with “Отче наш (Otche nash)” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Pretty cool that they listed the title in Cyrillic on their website, right? They had a dark, vibrant sound, perfect for the piece. They followed this with “O Praise the Lord (Psalm 117)” by the contemporary composer George Walker, an exciting piece. They ended the set with “Wondrous Love,” arranged by their former music director, Joseph H. Jennings. It was a well-crafted arrangement, perfectly calibrated for the group, though I could hear it done well by many different groups, even an especially gifted church choir.
The next set started with two Renaissance pieces, which is the style the group was best known for when they started. “Fratres, ego enim accepi” by Palestrina was beautiful, but again, I was bothered by the acoustic, the counterpoint between the vocal lines was muddy and individual voices were too prominent. “Ave, spes nostra” by Vicente Lusitano was the first highlight of the concert. The voices rolled out with ease and clarity, it was gorgeous. They ended the set rather incongruously with “There is a Balm in Gilead,” another arrangement by Jennings, lovely, and again, perfect for the group, with some tasty, unexpected harmonies. It just didn't make sense after the two Renaissance pieces. The piece featured a solo by one of their countertenors, Cortez Mitchell.
The next piece was a world premiere, a commission by the group, “Birds of Paradise” by Steven Sametz. The piece referenced and quoted quite a lot of birdsong and even featured some birdlike head movements and slight flapping of wings by the singers. This is the kind of thing that would ordinarily drive me around the bend, but it worked in this case! The piece was whimsical but built on a solid musical foundation, a winning mixture.
“Rakastava” by Jean Sibelius was beautiful, and when was the last time you heard a group sing in Finnish? Tenor Brian Hinman had a featured solo and sounded great. The music had a pale, chilly sound - - could I describe it as a “menthol” sound? I think I just did. “Rescue” was written by Matthew Alber, a former member of the group. It had a warm sound, a nice contrast to the Sibelius. Another of their tenors, Matthew Mazzola, had a solo in this piece, and while his poppy sound wasn’t exactly to my taste, it was appropriate to the piece and he sounded sincere.
If the pop element of that piece bothered me, the next piece totally delivered on its promise to flip my stomach: I turned away in horror when I looked at the program before the concert and saw they were doing an arrangement of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” the Whitney Houston classic. Oh no. Oh yes! It was just as distasteful as I feared it would be. Ill-advised, so not right.
The final song, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” was an arrangement of a Stevie Wonder song. It had the advantage of being a song I didn’t know. That makes it easier to take.
All was forgiven with their encore, “Oh Shenandoah,” in a familiar arrangement by Matthew Bartholemew and James Erb. The piece opened with a divine solo by baritone Matthew Knickman, and later my friend countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf sounded even more divine. It seemed especially fitting to end this London-hosted concert with an American folk song arrangement. Here they are singing it in 2009:
“Отче наш (Otche nash)” by Sergei Rachmaninoff
“O Praise the Lord (Psalm 117)” by George Walker
“Wondrous Love,” Traditional, arr. Joseph H. Jennings
“Fratres, ego enim accepi” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
“Ave, spes nostra” by Vicente Lusitano
“There is a Balm in Gilead,” Traditional Spiritual, arr J.H. Jennings
“Birds of Paradise” by Steven Sametz Commissioned by Chanticleer in 2020
“Rakastava” by Jean Sibelius
“Rescue” by Matthew Alber, arr. David Maddux
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by George Merrill (b. 1956) and Shannon Rubicam (b. 1951), arr. D. Maddux, as performed by M. Alber
“I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” by Stevie Wonder (b. 1950), arr. Brian Hinman