By now, the 12-man vocal band known as Chanticleer has sung and recorded pieces in almost every imaginable genre, a long way from the Renaissance group its founder had in mind back in the late 1970s.
But Chanticleer has managed in its career of nearly 35 years and multiple personnel changes to bring the same kind of polish and quality to everything they do, and that makes everything on their program sound like part of one central library.
Wednesday night at the Parker Playhouse, the San Francisco-based dozen brought its Love Story program to Fort Lauderdale, a collection of songs that ranges from the late Renaissance to music finished just two years ago – with encores from the worlds of jazz and glam rock to boot.
The Parker is a historic house, but acoustically it leaves something to be desired for an unamplified vocal ensemble. Although there was a general floor mic at the front of the stage, much of this music works better in a room with a little reverb, and the Playhouse has virtually none. That detracted somewhat from the performance early on, especially as the concert began with music written for the church.
The first set of three songs were settings from the Song of Songs, the first two by Sebastian de Vivanco, and the third (Nigra sum) by his Spanish contemporary, Tomas Luis de Victoria. These were lovingly and carefully sung, though the volume was a little low; what the performances had above all was smoothness of line and vocal blend.
Maurice Durufle’s Ubi caritas, which came next, was radiantly beautiful, with the group’s tender approach mirroring the old church text of godly and human love with great gentleness. Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s Epithalame, also from the Song of Songs, is less direct musically but harmonically extravagant, and its closing pages gave the relatively large Parker house an idea of what Chanticleer sounds like singing a virtual tone cluster.
For the three-song set of Renaissance French songs that came next, Chanticleer used partial forces: quartets for Claudin de Sermisy’s Tant que vivray and Clement Janequin’s Toutes les nuits, and a quintet for Claude Le Jeune’s Revoici venir du printemps. Each of the smaller ensembles sang ably, with extra-soft dynamics at the end of the Janequin, and a strong sense of joyful rhythm for the Le Jeune, a piece with an attractive, memorable melody.
The first half closed with a true rarity, the Drei Mannerchore (Op. 45) of Richard Strauss, set to poems by Friedrich Ruckert. These are wonderful pieces, full of Strauss’ signature style, with perhaps the best one being the second of the set, Traumlicht. It has a ravishingly beautiful main theme and striking harmonic changes in the middle section (Komm oft, O Stern). The Chanticleer men exhibited admirable accuracy in making those sudden changes, and they gave the song an absorbing sense of rapt serenity.
The second half was devoted to contemporary music, and opened with Not an End of Loving, a three-song cycle by the American composer Steven Sametz, written in 2010. These are very skillful, engaging settings, with the first, When I Become You, built out of a sort of nervous chatter that ends in surprise, and the last, the song that gives the cycle its title (from an 8th-century English text), a carefully paced work with a modal motif that sets it on its way. The middle one, We Two Boys Together Clinging, from a poem by Walt Whitman, was masterful, built around a repeat of the words Two boys over some slowly moving background harmonies.
The Sametz songs were presented with thorough expertise, and the piece that followed, Eric Whitacre’s The Marriage, was performed in a way that fit its overall simplicity. But it was the next piece, British composer John Tavener’s The Village Wedding, that finally lit a fire under the respectful Parker audience and got them moving into more enthusiastic territory.
And with good reason: This was a taut, riveting reading of the work that grew in power as it progressed. Even the group’s minimalist choreography, as the singers rotated in a circle, stopping from time to time and allowing the repeated line, O Isaiah, dance for joy, for the Virgin is with child, to come from different singers, added to the beauty of the singing. And if a couple of the more elaborate melismatic moments were less persuasive than the mood they set with the drone underneath, the idea that the Greek village wedding told here is one with the original Christian birth union was abundantly clear.
The formal concert ended with four pieces from a large song cycle by American composer Stephen Paulus called The Lotus Lovers. Like the Sametz, these are well-crafted works alive to the text and the possibilities presented by a choral ensemble. In the second piece, Late Spring (the texts are 4th-century Chinese), Paulus has fun with word-painting, making the voices swoop and fall with the words The willows bend, and in the fourth, Illusions, he makes a most effective presentation of sleeplessness with the agitated setting of the words The night is endless.
Chanticleer performed three encores, beginning with Harry Frommermann’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call, then following it with John Gordon’s take on Ellington’s Satin Doll. The Creole Love Call arrangement, written for Germany’s Comedian Harmonists, was full of Mills Brothers-style imitation trombones and trumpets, and an overall sense of goofiness that the audience loved. Satin Doll again demonstrated the exceptional creaminess of Chanticleer’s sound, one that makes it sound like one voice; the central beauties here were found in the big, rich jazz chords.
The group sent the audience home in joyful style with Freddie Mercury’s Somebody to Love, in an arrangement by Vince Peterson. Mercury was a well-trained pianist before becoming a glam-rock icon in the 1970s, and his wider-than-usual harmonic vocabulary lends itself nicely to Chanticleer’s approach. It was particularly impressive to hear the Chanticleer sopranos still able to hit the stratosphere with power and ease even after a demanding program.
Chanticleer returns to South Florida next year, when it performs a new program at the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 27, 2013. Call 954-598-9321 for more information.