To begin I have to admit I love Chanticleer. I first heard them on the radio. I live in the Bay Area and as Chanticleer is a San Francisco group the local classical radio station had deviated from its usual avoidance of vocal music and played a track. It was a gorgeous Renaissance motet. Like Chanticleer’s founder, Louis Botto, I too was a musicology student focusing on Medieval and Renaissance music, so I was overjoyed to hear a motet coming out of my car radio. The performance was great and the sound was incredible. When the DJ said that it was an all male group, I thought impossible. Those crystalline soprano lines couldn’t have been men, but they were. I rushed out and bought the CD.
If you’ve heard a recording of Chanticleer you were doubtlessly impressed with the quality of the sound, the beauty of the music and the perfection of the performance, but if you haven’t heard them live, you’re missing something really good. She Said/He Said is no exception. In the excellent acoustics of the Mission Santa Clara one doesn’t care what is being sung. It is enough to just let the sensual richness of the voices overwhelm you. It’s like a drug and once you’ve heard it you need more. Recordings don’t do it justice.
She Said/He Said was billed as the dialog between women and men in music, featuring music from Cole Porter to Joni Mitchell. That was a little misleading. To begin the program they went back to their roots with a Palestrina motet, Gaude glorioso, à 5. The whole set focused on praise of the Virgin. The highlight of the first set was Ave Virgo sanctissima by Hildegard von Bingen. Written more than four centuries before the other works in the set, it stood out, not that it sounded primitive by comparison. On the contrary, the thinner texture of the polyphony, particularly in the beginning, harkened more to the texture of the 18th Century polyphony of Bach. No, she didn’t write tonal harmony, but listening to von Bingen it is hard for me to place her in the era of the early Gothic Ars Antiqua, that of organum and conductus.
The second set stayed solidly in the Renaissance with a Gabrieli and two Willaerts. All four were love songs making use of the literary conceit of the time that to die was to have a sexual orgasm. Her plea that, “Alas my dear, do not die yet, For I desire to die with you,” shows that through the centuries not much has changed. The set closed with a favorite composition, Monteverdi’s, Oimè se tanto amate. In this context, one is tempted to label Monteverdi as a transitional figure and as such he leads us from the Renaissance to the Romantic Era, completely skipping the Classical.
On we go to the 19th Century with two Mendelssohn’s, one Fanny and one Felix and two Brahms’. Of these, I liked the Schöne Fremde by Fanny Mendelssohn best. It seemed more imaginative. The next set moved into the early 20th Century with three songs by Ravel, and the final set in the first half was two compositions using Emily Dickinson’s poems for text: Let Down the Bars, O Death by Samuel Barber and “Wait” Fantasy arranged by Steve Hackman, a work commissioned by Chanticleer. Dickinson and Barber seemed to have been made for each other. Their emotional affect so similar. “Wait” Fantasy used the text of several poems in a kind of set of variations with poems recurring in different guises.
The second half moved not only into the 21st Century but also towards popular music. In the first two short sets my favorite was the traditional Russian song, Oy Polná, Polná Koróbyska, arranged by Konstantin Shvedoff. I am always amazed at how distinctive Russian and Slavic folk music in general is. From the first moment you know it’s Russian. I don’t know if it’s melodic, rhythmic or harmonic, but somehow you just know. It’s a tribute to the versatility of Chanticleer that they can begin a program with the refined sound of a Palestrina motet and also sing with the exuberance of a Russian folk tune.
Chanticleer shows even more versatility with the last set when we finally get to the promised Cole Porter, So in Love. A new member of the group Marques Jerrell Ruff sang it as a solo with the rest of the group singing backup. In this section of the program, Chanticleer makes sort of the same transition the Beatles did after Rubber Soul, becoming more of lead with side men than a band. As for side men, I have to talk about Eric Alatorre. So in Love began with just Jerrell Ruff singing lead and Aletorre singing a rhythmic accompaniment. As a bass-baritone myself, which is to say a basso wannabe, I listen to Alatorre’s basso with awe and envy. It is dark, rich, round and velvety. He seems to have no bottom. I’m sure he sings some of the bass lines down an octave. I would, however, like to pass along a piece of advice that was given to me when I was playing bari sax in a big band: “It’s impossible to play the bari sax part too loud.”
The bass part cannot only never be too loud, its importance must not be underestimated. The bass is the firmament upon which the whole sound of the ensemble is built. Some concert bands tune-up not to the usual high winds, a clarinet or an oboe, but to the bass. By doing so the whole band is in tune with the overtones of the bass. It’s like the art of casting a bell so that the overtones ring true. It makes the band ring. And when the conductor gives the final cut off, as the sound dissolves into silence, the last sound to be heard should be the bass. Alatorre is that firmament.
Time to get off of my soap box. Chanticleer is a treasure not to be missed. As I write this they are beginning a concert tour. Check their web site for the cities and dates. If they are coming to a city near you, go.