Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: Chanticleer

March 29, University of Richmond

Chanticleer, the men’s vocal ensemble from San Francisco, is marking the beginning of its fourth decade with about as wide-ranging a sampler of American music as could be imagined. The program, "Wondrous Free," contrasts early Anglo-American hymnody with liturgical music from the Catholic missions of Spanish California, and familiar folk tunes with modern and contemporary ensemble pieces that sound like latter-day madrigals. (All that’s missing, curiously, is the program’s namesake, believed to be the first secular song written in English-speaking America.)

In this concert, as in so many others, the 12 men – sopranos Dylan Hotstetter, Michael McNeil and Gregory Peebles; altos Cortez Mitchell, Alan Reinhardt and Adam Ward; tenors Brian Hinman, Matthew Oltman and Todd Wedge; and basses Eric Alatorre, Gabriel Lewis-O’Connor and Jace Wittig – demonstrated that no vocal music, no style, no degree of structural or harmonic complexity, elude them. If that weren’t enough, they’re also pretty good at shtick comedy and even better at deadpan humor.

The program’s highlights were "Credidi," a sacred piece elaborated in madrigal style by the early 17th-century Mexican cleric-composer Juan de Lienas – one of a number of early Latino-American works that Chanticleer has revived after centuries of neglect – and "Sleep My Child," a ravishing lullaby that Eric Whitacre originally wrote (to a text by David Noroña) for his opera "Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings" and subsequently rearranged for this ensemble.

The Lienas displayed Chanticleer at its most virtuosic in intricate part-singing; the Whitacre showcased the rarified, almost weightless sonorities this group can create and sustain.

Two more ventures into madrigal style – Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach numbers "The Queen to Me a Royal Pain Doth Give" and "My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth" – proved less successful. They sounded lovely; but the words, and thus the humor, were obscured in the wash of tone.

The most novel offering of the evening was "Night Chant," written for Chanticleer by the American Indian (Mohican) composer Brent Michael Davids. The piece is extended musical foreplay for a night of love-making, layering a dialogue between male and female characters and a variety of naturalistic and percussive effects on a bassy chant, rendered sonorously by Alatorre.

The program began with a foursome of early hymn tunes, including two shape-note fuguing tunes, William Billings’ "David’s Lamentation" from the 18th century and A.M. Cagle’s "Soar Away," which dates from the 1930s but belongs to a much older tradition of rustic but highly expressive "Sacred Harp" singing.

In three pieces from Samuel Barber’s song cycle "Reincarnations" and "The Homecoming," a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. that David Conte composed to a text by John Stirling Walker, Chanticleer showed its fluency in modern harmonies emphasizing high registers.

A set of three Stephen Foster tunes – "Hard Times Come Again No More," "Gentle Annie" and "Nelly Bly" – led into a concluding selection of folk and popular songs. The last set featured outstanding solos by Mitchell in the Gershwins’ "Summertime," Hinman in "Rock My Soul" and Peebles in "Shenandoah."