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April 26, 2005

Feminine mystique, in masculine harmony

New York Newsday:

In Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," the henpecked cock Chauntecleer talks out of both sides of his beak, declaring that woman is man's ruin and also his "joy" and "bliss." His namesake, San Francisco's 12-man choral ensemble Chanticleer, pulled off a similar feat of conceptual legerdemain Friday in "Women, Saintly and Otherwise," their Metropolitan Museum of Art program exploring the ever-shifting images and voices of humanity's feminine half.

The concert opened with works honoring the Virgin Mary. To "Gaude virgo, mater Christi," a motet by 15th century composer Josquin Desprez, Chanticleer brought a lean but multilayered sound and a spry rhythm befitting a song of praise and joy. The group's 12 voices sounded miraculously as one in an austere plainsong version of "Ave Maria," then blossomed with the radiant colors of a rose window in Tomás Luis de Victoria's ecstatic setting of the same prayer. Chanticleer's basses mustered a respectable Slavic buzz in an Eastertide hymn by 17th century Russian Vassily Titov.

Profane concerns dominated the next set. Chanticleer's normally crisp enunciation was muddied by the Temple of Dendur's vast dimensions in Thomas Weelkes' "As Vesta Was," a tribute to Britain's Elizabeth I. Maurice Ravel's "Nicolette" showcased the group's enormous range: scampering cadences, chromatic slides, a page's fey allure and a fetid old man's pecuniary charms. Chanticleer lavished expressive clarity upon the tortured dissonances and dense imagery of four sestinas by Claudio Monteverdi: chilly tones for the "cold earth" covering a dead lass, cries of anguish and whispers of resignation for the closing prayer at her tomb. Robert Lucas Pearsall's "Lay a Garland," a 19th century evocation of Renaissance polyphony, featured lushly beautiful harmonies and a gorgeous bloom of sound that swelled and tapered to a single, vibrant point.

The group stopped time in John Tavener's "Song for Athene," commingling words from "Hamlet" and the Orthodox vigil service. Chanticleer created the illusion of a single, prolonged drone, over which they wove plaintive, questioning phrases punctuated by alleluias. Their tones faded imperceptibly into nothingness, winning a roar of gratitude from listeners loath to leave the meditative space that Chanticleer so magically had wrought.

Contemporary works, including Cary John Franklin's gnomic "The Uncertainty of the Poet" and a voluptuous Byron setting by Eric William Barnum, rounded out the program. "Purple Syllables," a world premiere collection of Emily Dickinson settings by Augusta Read Thomas, honored Chanticleer's avian ancestry with poems evoking the "lonesome glee" of nature's songsters. The ensemble responded with purrs and trills, glassy whistles and shimmering harmonies, ideally responsive to Thomas and Dickinson's ingratiating but severe muse.

Arrangements by Jeeyoung Kim of traditional Korean works - a lilting lullaby and a raucous love song full of guttural chants and raspy flights into falsetto - brought the official program to an end. The world's suavest and sexiest version of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" and other choice encores left the audience in joyous anticipation of Chanticleer's December return to New York.

Posted by acapnews at April 26, 2005 12:25 AM