On Friday night, I had the opportunity to listen to Chanticleer, the all male chorus based in San Fransisco. I was completely blown away by their technique, and the way that they were able to add so much beauty to their music. Also, I was constantly surprised by their technique. They label their singers soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and believe me, when they say “soprano” they mean soprano! For the first couple of numbers, I was trying to pick out who was singing in the countertenor range (the falsetto range that overlaps with high female voices) and I finally realized that at any time, almost all of them could sing in that range. On the other end of the spectrum, the low notes from the lone bass, Eric Alatorre, were so low that at one point they started rattling the acoustic panels behind the stage.
The program was a mixture of American music. There were some of the standard pieces that one might think would be a part of an all-American concert; some Stephen Foster, George Gershwin pieces, but augmented with some other genres that are not as often performed, such as Native American music and sacred songs from the California missions.
It was such an amazing concert that it becomes really hard to pick highlights. There was a set of songs by Samuel Barber with text by the Irish poet James Stephens that was truly lovely. In fact, it contained one of the most lovely moments of the concert, where, at the end of the song “Anthony O’Daly,” a song with a lot of dissonance and long ostinatos, the chorus broke into a massive lovely final chord, seemingly using all of the voices to fill every acoustical and harmonic space. As it was a part of a set, the audience could not applaud, and I could see several people physically restraining themselves from clapping. It was as if the room was debating whether to break concert decorum to recognize the moment.
Another highlight were two rather experimental pieces. The first was Brent Michael Davids’ “Night Chant,” a piece using both European harmony and Mohican chant. The piece was very interesting, and it seemed to straddle the line between tonal and melodic and too abstract for me to appreciate. The end came together nicely into something that I could understand, but I really need to listen to it again to know how I feel. The second was “Sleep My Child” by Eric Whitacre, a choral adaptation of an aria from his experimental techno/ambient opera Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings. I was tremendously excited by this piece; it seemed to sound like the music that I hope to compose myself. It blended some of the harmonic experiments that have been done in popular music with traditional harmony in a way that was neither cheap nor pretentious. It was my second favorite piece of the night.
My favorite, however, was Chanticleer’s rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from the opera Porgy and Bess, featuring the lovely countertenor of Cortez Mitchell. At first, I was hit with a “There’s no way he can pull off an aria for an operatic soprano,” but I cannot express how beautiful that song was. I spent all of Saturday hunting for a recording, but none exists, and among existing recordings by women, few can match how beautiful that rendition was.
There were a couple of moments that I was meh about. Nothing was bad, however there were two sacred songs by Spanish priests from California that I really was not in the mood for. I am in my fifth week of an intensive course on Renaissance counterpoint. I have heard enough counterpoint to last me my entire life. So the eight part counterpoint of those mission songs kind of put my teeth on edge.
Also, they did one of my favoite songs ever, Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” But they performed it in a straight-ahead barbershopy style that I thought was a little bit disappointing considering the more complex alternate chordings that have now become the standard.
All told, one of my favorite concerts.