His and hers: the men of Chanticleer sing all the parts
Between them the 12 men cover a choral spectrum of about four octaves. How?
Chanticleer: although the line-up spans the usual vocal ranges of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, all 12 positions are filled by men
Sunday’s concert at the National Concert Hall, under the banner She Said / He Said for San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Chanticleer, seeks to embrace in equal measures the feminine and masculine sides of musical subjectivity and creativity. But in a programme that spans nine centuries and includes something for everyone, this lofty aim entails a little positive discrimination.
The best compensations that can be made for a still male-dominated roster of composers are found in female subject matter and associations. From three masters of Renaissance polyphony (Palestrina, Guerrero and Victoria) there are motets in honour of the Virgin Mary, while the madrigalists Andrea Gabrieli and Monteverdi are hard at work with the well-worn death-equals-detumescence metaphor. Brahms is lamenting lost love ( Nachtwache ), Barber and Steve Hackman are setting Emily Dickinson ( Let Down the Bars and “Wait” Fantasy ), and Ravel is depicting womanly avarice and infidelity ( Trois chansons ).
Women composers nonetheless get more than just token representation. From the earliest, the 12th-century abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, there is a further and more intensely ritual address to the Virgin. There is harmless sibling rivalry from the Mendelssohns, in which a part-song by underrated sister Fanny ( Schöne Fremde ) gives another by her famous brother Felix ( Wasserfahrt ) more than a run for its money. There is a polished setting of Carl Sandburg, newly commissioned from Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop. And there are numbers from American songwriters Ann Ronell ( Willow Weep for Me ) and June Carter Cash ( Ring of Fire ), the latter in an arrangement by Anúna boss Michael McGlynn.
With Chanticleer, however, protestations of gender equality have to be taken with a large grain of salt. Although the line-up spans the usual vocal ranges of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, all 12 positions in the ensemble are filled by men. Those men have backgrounds in opera, broadway, gospel choirs and rock bands. When they aren’t singing with Chanticleer (which isn’t too often), they are active as composers, conductors, and record producers. They are into mathematics, jazz, American poetry, Beyoncé, vintage wines and gourmet cookery. And between them they cover a choral spectrum of about four glorious octaves, making them every bit as panoramic as a fully adept group of men’s and women’s voices.
How do they do it? Certainly not with voice-bending doses of helium or digital sound processing. The answer is purely one of prodigious vocal technique, and specifically the cultivation of what is sometimes termed the “head voice”, a kind of laryngeal second gear that secures higher vibrations by using only a restricted segment of the vocal cords. Long ago, the Italians registered their distrust of this method by dubbing it “a little false”. But the capacity for making these so-called “falsetto” sounds is natural to everyone, women and men. Few humans develop skill in singing this way, but for those who do there is nothing false about it. And the men among them, whether they sing alto or soprano, are proud to call themselves countertenors.
Chanticleer was founded as a crack a-cappella unit by historical musicologist Louis Botto in 1978. Initially the emphasis was on early music, but the repertoire soon diversified into just about every choral style imaginable. Nearly 40 years and more than 40 records later, the ensemble makes two international tours and tutors more than 5,000 students annually.
It also upholds a basic principle that the ultimate choral conductor doesn’t exist. Acting music director Jace Wittig is conspicuous by his absence from the platform, and every singer seems a maestro in his own right. The impression is of a concert happening by magic. A fresh configuration is assumed for each item as if with the help of some finely calibrated mechanism. When scores are no longer required (nearly half the items are sung from memory), the music folders are somehow made to disappear.
These sleights of hand are mere accessories to the choral discipline itself. True, at moments the tenors may have been ever-so-slightly more predominant than would have been ideal. But co-ordination and intonation are to die for.
The running order – which is chronological apart from a half-millennium backward glance to Hildegard – tends to privilege the newer music over the old, with a slow-but-steady intensification of interpretive zeal. The Renaissance motets thus prove vehicles for a refined, even restrained approach that keeps the smouldering emotion of Guerrero’s Ave Virgo Sanctissima from actually igniting. Hints of theatricality are ushered in with the madrigals, touches of arresting articulation with the Romantic part-songs. Things really get going with Ravel’s rarefied chansons, miraculously rescued from their own effeteness by an unabashed performance.
Back in the present
A weighty contemporary element includes nods to the chill-out mode (McGlynn, Eric Whitacre) that strike chords with today’s choral practitioners and audiences. But the real meat is in a clutch of virtuosic spirituals dished up by one-time Chanticleer music director Joseph Jennings, in the variegated textures conjured by Garrop, and in Hackman’s freshly composed, jaw-dropping choral extravaganza on Wait by French band M83.
All these pieces have their fair share of sensuous harmony, but here it forms part of a sophisticated musical rhetoric that enhances the verbal imagery, tugging at the listener’s emotions as its arranger-composers intended.
She says, he says. But they sing, as only Chanticleer could.
Michael Dervan is on leave