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A truthful-yet-succinct review of any Chanticleer concert could simply state, '"Chanticleer's singers performed admirably before a large audience. Their voices and musicianship were as fine as ever, their stylistically wide-ranging program earning them a well-deserved ovation."
All that was true for this renowned group of men's voices as they returned to Duke's Baldwin Auditorium for a program entitled "Faith of Our Fathers." However, there was a difference this time: four of the group's twelve singers were ill (as was pointed out, NOT from the coronavirus, but from a nevertheless-debilitating "flu"). So, what to do when you're missing three counter-tenors and a bass? You remove some musical works from your program and substitute others; you conjure up Chanticleer's earliest days when, because of finances, they had to tour with only eight singers. Following the best tradition of performers, you "go on with the show." And so they did!
The previously-announced Josquin mass? Replaced by three movements of Filipe de Magahäes' (1571-1652) mass O Soberana Luz. Works by Jackson Hill, Orlando Gibbons, and William Billings? Replaced by William Byrd, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and Zhou Tian. Taking advantage of their large repertoire, the eight able-voiced men and their music director William Fred Scott crafted a new hybrid program "on the fly," mostly true to the announced theme and, as the phrase goes, "not missing a beat." Duke Performances managed to provide a printed program with excellent notes (by Scott, countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf, and Director of Education Cole Thomason-Redus) embodying all the changes; no easy feat there, although the tiny type made it essentially unreadable once the auditorium lights were dimmed.
For posterity's sake, here is the program as sung (curiously enough, both the original and the substituted "Faith of our Fathers" musical menu began with a work by a woman):
Hildegard von Bingen: "O frondens virga"
Filipe de Magahäes: Missa O Soberana Luz (Kyrie, Gloria, & Agnus Dei)
Thomas Tallis: "If Ye Love Me"
William Byrd: "Ave verum corpus" and "Justorum animae"
Peter Philips: "Gaudens gaudebo"
Francisco Guerrero: "Signasti Domine"
Tomás Luis de Victoria: "Ave maris stella"
Antonio de Salazar: "O sacrum convivium"
Zhou Tian: Trade Winds (Three movements, texts by John Masefield, Zhimo Zu, and Seth Michelson)
Trad. American, arr. Shaw/Parker: "His Voice as the Sound"
Ned Rorem "All Glorious God" and "Sing, My Soul, His Wondrous Love"
Sea shanty arrangements by Gustav Holst: "Swansea Town" and "I Love My Love"
arr. Parker/Shaw: "Tom's Gone to Hilo"
Trad. Korean, arr. Chen Yi: "Arirang"
Princess Te Rangi Pai, arr. David Hamilton: "Hine e Hine"
Lawson, Waller, and Yates, arr. Jennings: "Calling My Children Home"
Spiritual, arr. Parker/Shaw: "My God is a Rock"
Alexander and Whitaker, arr. Jennings: "Straight Street"
Encore: "Mad Blake," composed by long-time Chanticleer member Adam Ward.
To talk about the performance of each work is beyond the scope of this commentary, but perhaps these observations may capture the essence of this program: From the beginning, Chanticleer's intonation was, in a word, exquisite. Like a freshly-tuned keyboard instrument, every chord was perfectly in tune; what a joy to hear! While it was curious to hear Germanic Latin in the de Magalhäes mass, that was an indication of how good the group's diction is. Regardless of the language, every word was clear. True to Chanticleer's musical history of exploring the beauties of Renaissance a cappella music, the English and Spanish motets were sung lovingly, their homophonic and polyphonic structures in clear definition, each phrase perfectly-shaped.
How good are these eight singers? Good enough to sing the two double-choir motets (Philips and de Salazar), one singer to each of the eight parts. (This skill level has long been wished for by choral conductors: J.S. Bach, writing about his needs for the Thomaskirche choir, said that he required at least two each of competent sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses so that he could perform eight-part antiphonal choruses!)
Chanticleer continues to inspire the creation of new music. Zhou Tian's Trade Winds, premiered by Chanticleer in Germany in August 2019, exemplifies this. One of the serendipities of having to revise the program was the addition of this cycle, about which Zhou has written: "Trade Winds is a song cycle about traveling. It was set to three poems from three poets of three different continents: 'Trade Winds' by John Masefield (English, 1878-1967), 'Fortuitousness' by Zhimo Xu (Chinese, 1897-1931), and 'Strange how we can walk' by Seth Michelson (American, born 1978). The piece finds common ground in the poems, and forms an overarching concept of travel and finding new love. I see it as a cycle of warmth and chicness – a little frequent traveler's musical reflection." This is superb choral writing for any chorus good enough to learn it; it was, of course, sung flawlessly by the "eight who persevered." Its constantly-shifting tonal center, augmented by a bit of acting, reveals a harmonic palette not unlike a 21st century Neo-Impressionist painting's colors. This is a composition which makes me want to hear more from Zhou.
Even in this hybrid program, there were inter-connecting relationships between compositions from different eras. There is a clear harmonic progression from the Southern Harmony hymn "His Voice as the Sound" to Rorem's "Sing, My Soul, His Wondrous Love" (dedicated to the late Paul Callaway, longtime organist-choirmaster of Washington Cathedral, one of my own teachers); there is a similarity in robustness of writing between the Holst-arranged sea shanties or the vigorous shape-note tune of "His Voice as the Sound" and the African-American spiritual "My God is a Rock in a Weary Land." These connections are all the more powerful in the concert experience for being hidden except upon retrospect.
Where most church-choir countertenors sing alto parts, Chanticleer's easily ascend to the top of the typical soprano range. In their usual twelve-voice group, there are six countertenors, three tenors, and three baritones/basses: in other words, a triple soprano/alto/tenor/bass quartet. Each singer is a soloist in his own right but blends his voice with the others except when singing a solo within a particular chorus. Many of the singers have other musical talents: countertenor Ward is also a composer, evidenced by the group's only encore, Ward's setting of William Rose Benét's "Mad Blake."
Chanticleer remains, after almost 40 years and 120 singers through those many seasons, one of the absolutely finest ensembles of men's voices in the world. This was not their first visit to Duke; it surely won't be their last!