Review: Chanticleer In Concert—Very Pleasant, But Not Entirely Satisfying
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, December 4, 2017
Chanticleer, the award-winning all-male vocal ensemble based in San Francisco, kicked off the national tour of its annual Christmas program this past Friday evening at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. It was all very pleasant, but in the end not entirely satisfying.
The program comprised a broad mix of repertoire spanning more than 1400 years and embracing eight languages, at least a dozen cultures, and styles ranging from plainsong to The Roches, all presented with elegance and warmth. Unfortunately, the elegance and warmth were laid on across the board, in broad, undifferentiated strokes that leveled essential distinctions of content, form, and character. Thus, a sophisticated modern anthem had pretty much the same sound as a faux-naïf French-Canadian carol, a Renaissance motet by “the Orpheus of Amsterdam,” or a Welsh folksong, and lines of text as diverse as “Son of The Most High, who carries his great kingdom on mighty shoulders” and “The Virgin washes diapers and hangs them on the rosemary-bush to dry” carried equivalent rhetorical weight.
There were parallel problems at the technical level: blend was uniformly creamy, even in pieces built around sectional contrast; coloratura was smoothed over so assiduously that florid passages sometimes sounded like sagging pitch; and complex chords that cry out for the kind of laser-intonation found in the best commercial singing went soft and woolly, and lost much of their intended impact. Diction was virtually nil—there was not a single S to be heard all evening, and not many T’s, either, so that a crisp, dancing line like Billings’s “Let your wandering steps be squared/By yonder shining star” turned into a meaningless string of vowels and went for nothing.
All of this, in turn, led to a larger interpretive problem. The carol-repertoire is rooted in strong narrative and various forms of public address: fully three-quarters of Friday’s program, for example, involved direct speech, exhortation, story-telling, conversation, or all of the above, and two of its biggest numbers incorporated fully-developed dramatic scenes, with clearly-drawn characters and extended dialogue. Chanticleer’s uniform loveliness and moderation tended to level this out, so that characters merged, background color obscured foreground substance, and Good King Wenceslas came across like Old King Cole, not at all like the saint whose radiant goodness warms the snow under his feet. This was nice singing, but it didn’t play the scene: there was neither danger nor fear in it, and therefore no miracle.
Christmas, being about birth, is also necessarily about death, and this program’s texts were full of the latter, from Sweelinck’s scrupulous separation of “gold, as for a great king; incense, as for a true God; and myrrh for his sepulchre” to a Neapolitan peasant’s childlike “O Gesù mio! Why do you suffer so? Because you love me!” Moments like these were as bright and pretty as the rest.
There was one great exception: Rosephanye (rhymes with “Persephone”) Powell’s thrilling spiritual sequence comprising “Rise Up Shepherd An’ Follow,” “Mary Had a Baby,” and “Come An’ See,” which came at the end and brought the house down. Powell is not only a composer and a choral educator, but a singer as well, and it shows in the magnificent solos she’s provided, one in each movement. Her ensemble-writing is gorgeous, too, and it’s always precisely expressive of the text; there’s not even a whiff of lavishness or calculation about it. She has call-and-response in her bones, and the tiny, quiet little dialogue in “Mary Had a Baby” is as perfect as such things can very well be. I won’t tell you what she does with the line “Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” because you are bound to hear this piece sooner or later, and I don’t want to be a spoiler; suffice it to say that it is unexpected, beautiful, and deeply, deeply moving. Chanticleer responded with their best work of the evening, most notably in Matthew Mazzola’s solo in “Rise Up, Shepherd.” Mazzola had all the blue notes and the tight microtonal tremolo, and he wasn’t afraid to scrinch up his face and preach. This was churchin’.
Dr. Powell grew up in Lanett, Alabama, which lies back to back with West Point, Georgia, where I grew up. (When I was little, my Daddy used to entertain visiting Yankees and other children by driving them down Highway 29 and hovering over the State Line, where he would announce that the front seat was in Alabama and the back seat was still in Georgia. This was always hilarious, for some reason.) I am Dr. Powell’s elder by fifteen years. We have never met, but back then our different skin-colors would have ensured that we could not associate. How wonderful, then, that a Christian Methodist and a Southern Baptist finally encounter one another in the putative world-capital of the War on Christmas, in the Roman Catholic parish that Jackie Kennedy belonged to, at a recital given by an all-male outfit from San Francisco, as part of a concert-series sponsored in large part by one of Donald Trump’s older sisters. If that’s not a Christmas miracle, then I give up. New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town, and Happy Holidays to you, too!
Sacred Music in a Sacred Place presents A Chanticleer Christmas at Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, 980 Park Avenue, on December 1, 2017, at 8:00pm (repeated December 3 at 4:00pm). Chanticleer, William Fred Scott, music director.
PLAINSONG Christe Redemptor Omnium
HASSLER Verbum Caro Factum Est Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)
DU CAURROY Noël, noël
MANCHICOURT Reges Terrae
SWEELINCK Ab Oriente
Medley, “Star of Wonder,” arr. Joseph H. Jennings
MORALES O Magnum Mysterium
Away in a Manger, arr. Robert Shaw & Alice Parker
BRITTEN A Hymn to the Virgin
REGER Mariä Wiegenlied
BIEBL Ave Maria
GONZÁLEZ Serenísima una noche
La Virgen lava pañales, arr. Robert Shaw & Alice Parker
LIGUORI Tu scendi dalle stele, arr. Giuseppe Tiralongo
Keresimesi Òdun De O, arr. Wendell Whalum
BILLINGS Methinks I See a Heavenly Host
Huron Carol, arr. Joseph H. Jennings
Suo Gân, arr. Lance Wiliford
Good King Wenceslas, arr. Robert Shaw & Alice Parker
O Little Town of Bethlehem, vv. 1-2 by Lewis Redner, v. 3 by William Fred Scott, v. 4
by Ralph Vaughan Williams
POWELL A Christmas Medley
HOLST In the Bleak Midwinter, arr. Joseph H. Jennings
Cover: Chanticleer in a publicity photo; courtesy of artists.