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November 8, 2004

Chanticleer brings crowd to feet

Cincinnati Post:

In what has become effectively an annual tradition, the all-male chorus Chanticleer brought its unique, eclectic brand of vocal music to Cincinnati's St. Peter in Chains Cathedral on Friday. The warmly received program brought the capacity crowd of nearly 900 cheering to its feet with a thoughtful mix of old and new, sacred and earthy. The title of the concert, the second of the cathedral's 2004-05 concert series, was "Women, Saintly and Otherwise," a theme carried through the subjects and composers of the night's varied works. The first half was dedicated to the spirit of the Renaissance -- and, appropriate to the venue, particularly to the Virgin Mary -- while the second half comprised 20th-century music, most written specifically for Chanticleer.

Perhaps because of the setting and its acoustics, the Renaissance works -- by Josquin Desprez, Claudio Monteverdi, Tomas de Victoria, Thomas Weelkes and Vassily Titov (a Russian choral incarnation of Gabrieli with an antiphonal style) -- were the most successful of the evening, showcasing Chanticleer's warm, homogeneous sound, and its powerful mix of expression and clarity. The group reminds audiences that, regardless of what has followed, this was passionate music in its day. Even the brief Gregorian chant introducing Victoria's "Ave Maria" was startling in its drama, thanks to almost Romantic-sounding dynamic contrast. Ravel's "Nicolette" was less successful. Its fleet harmonies turned soupy in St. Peter's expanse, and even Chanticleer's usual guaranteed intonation faltered.

The half closed with Renaissance revival pieces, one each from the 19th and 20th centuries. Robert Pearsall's "Lay a Garland" showed a clear mastery of the polyphonic style of the predecessors he so admired spiced with Mendelssohn-like harmonies. John Tavener's "Song for Athene" -- written after the accidental death of a young family acquaintance but made famous through its use at Princess Diana's funeral -- harkens back even farther, to Byzantine mysticism. The Tavener marked a musical high point in the program; the emotion from Chanticleer's dozen members ranged from loss to hushed reverence to blazing affirmation in the cathedral's resonance.

Centerpiece of the second half was "Purple Syllables," a group of Emily Dickinson poems set by American composer Augusta Read Thomas and written for Chanticleer. Besides matching the night's theme of women, the work features further symbolic ties: All the poems concern birds, an idea inspired by the group's namesake, a rooster in one of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." The settings are mostly playful and lyrical, and the group's clarity and ensemble unity again served them well.

Folk songs from around the world closed the performance. The first, Britain's "Down by the Sally Gardens," followed Minnesotan Eric Barnum's setting of Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" and clearly showed one of Barnum's stylistic inspirations. A set of three Korean tunes, traditionally sung by women at work let Chanticleer show off its earthy side. The program ended with two spirituals, "There Is a Balm in Gilead" and "Keep Your Hand On the Plow," which are featured on the group's latest CD. While both were spirited, the arrangement of "Gilead" gave it an unfortunate Pat Boone impression.

Posted by acapnews at November 8, 2004 10:13 PM