A little bit of heaven settled into eastern Carolina at mid-month, in the form of 12 splendid male voices that make up one of the finest choral ensembles in the world. Chanticleer brought its “In time of…” tour into Wright Auditorium as part of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series, and the nearly two-hour program of more than 20 songs spanned a range of time and geography and language and human emotions.

Chanticleer has been called an “orchestra of voices,” and this concert of a cappella singing showed why. You would expect to hear a nice blend of voices from professional singers on a medieval plainsong chant such as “Veni sponsa Christi,” or its later polyphonic counterpart by Palestrina, but you don’t necessarily expect to hear the sounds of battle, with drums and horns and even horses’ hooves, that came with “La Guerre (La Bataille de Marignan)” by Clement Janequin, a 16th century piece containing not just sound effects from the voices but also tricky shifts in rhythm that were handled with ease.

The austere, occasional dissonant settings by Gyorgy Ligeti, “Night” and “Morning,” complemented a near-avant garde piece, “Spring Dreams,” by Chinese-American composer Chen Yi, who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Both Ligeti and Chen Yi incorporate bird whistles into the score (as well as considerable whispering in the Chen Yi piece), and Chanticleer painted interesting sound pictures of the compositions, while also singing the pieces in their native language.

The tour draws its name from a work by contemporary American composer Steven Sametz, who directs choral activities at Lehigh University, and this is quite a lovely piece set to text by e.e. cummings. The singers create different small groupings on the stage and then shift the makeup and size of the groupings, usually by one singer moving from one group to another, before concluding with a group of seven and five, and then a strong quartet and eight, repeating the lines “forgetting me, remember me” several times.

Several other more contemporary works were on the program: Irish-born Michael McGlynn’s “Agnus Dei,” which shifted from Gaelic to Latin and included the sound of a bagpipe drone (again, using voices), a wonderful tenor lead by Brian Hinman, and an interesting repetition of “Dona nobis pacem” in clusters of repeated melodies and harmonies; and a set of Spanish-language songs that included the popular “Peanut Vendor” (“El Manisero”) that one usually associates with big bands of the 1930s. The Spanish-language songs — “Paraiso Sonado” from Domincan composer Manuel Sanchez Acosta and “El Grito” from American singer-composer Carmen Cavallaro — were among the musical highlights of the evening. “El Grito,” in particular, was beautiful music beautifully sung.
Indeed, it would be hard to pick out “the best” performance of the program, because it would depend on one’s musical tastes, and so many musical tastes and styles were on display. Certainly the opening “Hosanna to the Son of David” by Gibbons, with its intricate voicings, was both inspired and inspiring, as was “Unser Leben wagret siebzig Jahr” by Calvisius, with its interplay between quartet and double quartet.

The closing pair of spirituals, “Straight Street” and “Sit Down Servant,” was delivered with both energy and skill, and represented one of the few times during the performance that the baritone and bass voices had a starring role (the selections in this program seemed weighted more toward voices in the treble range than in the bass-baritone range). Bass Eric Alatorre and baritone Jace Wittig each stepped out nicely in these pieces. For some, a real highlight might have been alto Cortez Mitchell’s stunning version of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which likely could match just about any female singer’s rendition. 

This was choral singing of the highest order, and to the large number of young people in the audience — including many younger than college age — what you just heard from those dozen singers who call themselves Chanticleer might have sounded totally effortless, not to mention totally awesome. But the sound comes after hours of practice, full appreciation of the source of the music, and complete understanding of the nature of, and commitment to the presentation of, choral ensemble singing. Not everyone in Chanticleer is from the biggest cities or the best-known music programs (at least one East Carolina University graduate has sung with Chanticleer before, but of course, those in this part of the state know how good the ECU choral music program is); perhaps a young boy in the Wright Auditorium audience will be inspired enough to make that a goal for himself.