Review: Chanticleer

The following is reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat (14 November 2004), with permission.

The 2004-2005 season of the Artist Series continued Friday evening with a virtuoso performance by Chanticleer at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More.

Chanticleer, making its first visit to Tallahassee in 10 years, is a 12-voice men's chorus. What makes it different from other men's choruses (which normally consist of tenors and basses) is its complement of "countertenors," who sing in falsetto with full power.

Friday's concert was organized around the theme "Women, Saintly and Otherwise" and included pieces by and about women. The first group of pieces focused on Mary, and one of the highlights of the concert was the performance of the Gregorian chant "Ave Maria." Gregorian chants are unaccompanied one-voice settings of the liturgical texts of the Roman Catholic Church. The sound of 12 voices singing in perfect unison was as voluptuous in its own way as the full harmonies of most of the program.

A selection of Elizabethan and modern madrigals included a performance of Thomas Weelkes' As Vesta Was that was distinguished by balanced counterpoint and rhythmic life. The assured performance of Maurice Ravel's "Nicolette" was subtle and colorful, and Chanticleer handled the French composer's rich chromaticism with ease and style.

A performance of a selection of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi showed off the group's strengths. Here were beautiful sounds, rendered with a strong sense of ensemble and impeccable intonation.

Robert Pearsall's Lay a Garland was the only 19th-century music on the program, and Chanticleer embraced the harmonic language, which included many melodic dissonances, beautifully emphasized and resolved in this performance.

The high point of the evening was a powerful performance of John Tavener's Song for Athene, an elegy for a family friend. Tavener is a proponent of the New Simplicity, and his music is made of elements of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. The text is a combination of lines from Hamlet and from Orthodox liturgy. The music places simple melodic lines over a drone in the basses. Chanticleer's austere reading was poignant and direct.

Selections from Augusta Read Thomas' Purple Syllables anchored the second half of the concert. These settings of Emily Dickinson poems about birds (the piece was written for Chanticleer, whose name comes from a singing rooster in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) were subtle, colorful, and at times, playful. Chanticleer navigated the difficult pieces with expression and, as always, a beautiful sound.

The concert ended with a selection of folk songs and popular numbers, which Chanticleer performed with flair and good humor. A Stephen Foster encore sent the Tallahassee audience out into the night happy and entertained.

Chanticleer (along with ensembles like the Kronos Quartet) subscribes to a dominant contemporary performance aesthetic that emphasizes a gleaming, beautiful sound surface and the presence of the performers themselves.

There are times when this sound quality overwhelms the music, replacing the individual expression of the composer with the performers' personality and making much of the music sound the same, regardless of compositional style.

There are other times, such as in Friday's performance of the John Tavener piece, when the prodigious resources of the gifted performers are fully in the service of the music. These moments are transcendent and are a major reason we listen to music in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:06 PM

    Years later, the sounds during Tavener's Song for Athene still echo in my soul. I was at this concert in Tallahassee when Chanticleer came to that church all those years ago.

    Last night I recalled to a friend at a party how, as their last song before intermission, I sat motionless for minutes after the final fading note, following the ending drone into infinity in my mind.

    One other time in my life have I felt that way during a choir of voices: a rendering of David's Lamentation years back that knocked out of me what familiarity I knew in the human voice. Such a powerful piece projected through the hall was unimaginable.

    I came across this post half a decade later while searching for a recording of Chanticleer's version of Song for Athene. Luckily, I found a live recording that can be listened on NPR.org (although it's a reasonable facsimile, the spirit pushed through the lungs of each performer can only be felt live).