Chanticleer, one of the world’s leading male concert choirs, returned to North Carolina on April 17 for a concert in the 1000-seat Sarah Graham Kenan Auditorium on the campus of UNC Wilmington. The host was the Wilmington Concert Association, one of our state’s most prestigious presenters; this performance, by the 35-year-old Bay Area chorus, concluded the WCA’s 82nd season.

Chanticleer, currently on a three-week spring tour, is a twelve-member “orchestra of voices.” Your garden-variety barbershop group it isn’t – few male choirs list sopranos and altos, but this one has three of each, performing alongside its tenors, baritones, and basses. (Countertenors and male altos are the more usual descriptors of treble voices among male singers.) The resulting sonority is amazing but unlike more conventional SATB ensembles, and the choir projects with directness and strength not always apparent in groups that are much larger. The current (interim) music director, Jace Wittig, did not appear on stage during this concert, but one of his arrangements was heard as the program’s final formal number.

The evening’s theme was “The Siren’s Call,” with selections reflecting maritime and nautical themes, bolstered with songs of love and loss that one might imagine being rendered by sailors. It could hardly have been improved upon for Wilmington, our Port City, our state’s leading ocean terminal, despite the distance from the city to the sea. (Residents of Morehead City may take umbrage at that statement, but it’s a fact.)

There was no specific mention of the terrorist assault that had occurred two days previously, in Boston, but there was enough in the words and music of this program to prompt reflection on the sanctity of our union and the ever-consoling and soothing blessings conveyed by these visiting artists to all who heard them.

The program itself – the musical lineup – was to a certain extent a mix-and-match affair that spanned a huge range of time and emotion from Nicolas Gombert’s “Toujours souffrir,” reflecting (let us say) the pain of love – its composer was born c.1492 – to “I hear the Siren’s Call,” written by Chen Yi (whose music has also been heard at Duke) for Chanticleer’s 35th anniversary. For this old sailor, the numbers reflecting the sea were among the most powerful – Palestrina’s “Ave maris stella,” Mason Bates’ haunting new version of “Die Lorelei,” the awesome imagery of the concluding medley, starting with “The Old Ship of Zion,” and – particularly – the concert’s major work, by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. This latter piece addressed in chillingly dramatic fashion the still-uncertain fate of the MS Estonia, aboard which, in 1994, in the Baltic Sea, well over 800 lives were lost.

The love songs were as varied and as rewarding, and along the way were some totally unexpected gems, including Mahler’s very early “Erinnerung” and an arrangement by Osamu Shimizu of “Sohran Bushi,” a Japanese fishing song of exceptional beauty. Several five-part madrigals brought variety to the manifold aural delights, as did frequent shifts in the arrangement of personnel across the stage.

There were no texts or translations, but there was enough in the way of commentary from the stage to keep the near-capacity audience informed and engaged from start to finish. At the end there was a steady build-up, fueled by the prettiest and best-sung version of a Tom Waits song (“Temptation”) anyone is likely ever to hear, anywhere, followed by that aforementioned gospel finale. The ensuing ovation brought the singers back several times before Freddie Mercury’s “(Find Me) Somebody to Love” sent the crowd away into the night, happy, content, and profoundly grateful for the art Chanticleer had shared.

At intermission and after the concert, the singers hawked CDs in the lobby. There are scads of them, and many are long-time favorites of fanciers of exceptional chamber singing everywhere. Chanticleer has once again demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they lead the pack in this highly-specialized field. Long may they continue to flourish!

The WCA has announced its 2013-4 season of four concerts – Canadian Brass (October 9), pianist Emanuel Ax (February 2), the Teatro Lirico d’Europa (offering Bizet’s Carmen on March 3), and the Moscow Festival Ballet (offering Prokofiev’s Cinderella on April 3). Details will be in CVNC‘s calendar in due course. Memberships are being offered now; for details, visit the presenter’s website.

And for still more information on Chanticleer, see this recent SFGate article by Joshua Kosman.