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December 15, 2007

A dose of Chanticleer cheer

San Jose Mercury News (CA):

We come each year, the comfort seekers, back to Chanticleer for a dose of the group's Christmas-time vibe. For inoculation against all the bad news in the world and the darkness of the season: Tell us it's OK, Chanticleer! Tell us!

Which the 12-man chorus does, each and every time, with "A Chanticleer Christmas," its annual holiday program, which rolled into Stanford University's Memorial Church on Tuesday and continues on through the Bay Area in the coming days. It is a warm sonic bath, a healing message of hope and, best of all, a show.

Tuesday's remarkable concert, presented by Stanford Lively Arts, began with the great sacred space darkened, the chorus processing toward the altar, intoning Gregorian chant, each member holding a candle. Simple symbolism: Twelve lights in the darkness, these singers, just as there were 12 tribes, 12 apostles. Our baptism by sound was about to begin.

It was a march through the centuries and across the continents, a dozen or more ways to sing about the Christmas story: Perotin (song as free ornamentation) and Josquin des Pres (song as tapestry), as well as a 17th century Mexican guaracha by Juan Garcia de Zéspedes (a song of the streets, vivacious). That was followed by ravishing Bruckner ("Virga Jesse") and a 20th century carol by Jan Sandström, a Swede, whose rarefied harmonies seemed to spin and drift inside some faraway, spiraling chamber.

That was the concert's first half: a progression toward the spectacular. And it got me thinking: How does Chanticleer do it? Concert after concert, season after season, even when it undergoes extensive personnel changes in the off-season, this chorus maintains an amazing consistency of sound, blend, polish and soul. It can be so good, as it was Tuesday, as to be shocking.

The wizard behind the curtain, as most Chanticleer fans know, is Joseph Jennings, who joined the chorus in 1983 as a countertenor (a male singer who sails up into falsetto range) and has been its music director for most of the time since. He isn't seen by the public all that much, except, sometimes, at the end of concerts, when, dapperly dressed and toting a fancy cane, he joins his singers on stage and takes a bow.

He didn't do that Tuesday, but his hand was all over the group sound and the choice of repertory. After intermission, that included a 20th century setting, by English composer Kenneth Leighton, of "The Coventry Carol," which dates to the 16th century. It tells the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, in which Herod orders the killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem.

Gruesome, right? Not as sung by Jennings' 12 apostles, who created an almost crazily beautiful group effect. Do you know the Beach Boy's "Pet Sounds"? Triple the ethereal impact of Brian Wilson's masterpiece, and you've got an idea of what happened Tuesday. I suppose some people might object to the way in which sound trumps text in some (not all) Chanticleer performances, but you won't hear that criticism from me.

The concert ended with a dozen Christmas songs, most of them arranged, appropriately, by Jennings, whose setting of "O come, All Ye Faithful" went spinning through one modulation after the next, with the hippest voice leading and chords. You could imagine Jennings in his studio, pen in hand, laughing, figuring out what to do here and here, drawing on all the music he loves: doo-wop, black gospel, Broadway, jazz, madrigals and more.

It wasn't a mishmash. It was one big fabulously blended tonic of Christmas cheer, served up by Chanticleer. They did it again.

Posted by acapnews at December 15, 2007 1:10 AM

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