05 Oct 2020

Love, always: Chanticleer, Live from London … via San Francisco

This tenth of ten Live from London concerts was in fact a recorded live performance from California. It was no less enjoyable for that, and it was also uplifting to learn that this wasn’t in fact the ‘last’ LfL event that we will be able to enjoy, courtesy of VOCES8 and their fellow vocal ensembles (more below …).

It was the first concert given by the male a cappella group, Chanticleer, since Covid-19 disrupted ‘normal’ life, and normal human culture and community. It was also, as music director Tim Keeler’s introduction and the post-concert Zoom-chat between VOCES8’s Barnaby Smith and the members of Chanticleer made apparent, a concert that required astonishing commitment from the singers to overcome restrictive obstacles and rules in order, quite simply, to be in the same space, take their masks off, and sing freely. Chanticleer grasped the opportunity to present newly commissioned music that should have been heard many months ago, and also to, in Keeler’s words, ‘include repertoire that reflects our commitment to engaging with these conversations in the best way we know how: through song.’

So, this was a diverse programme - a rich menu for the listener to digest in a short space of time, through a digital channel. Six countertenors in an ensemble of twelves voices? A programme juxtaposing Russian orthodoxy, Renaissance post-Tridentine majesty, the soul of the American spiritual and Stevie Wonder? But, it was a thrilling experience, and even if I was sometimes challenged to consider sounds, colours and approaches that I would normally eschew, it was unwaveringly engaging and exciting.

Chanticleer began their recital with Rachmaninov’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Otche nash’. The programme notes suggested that the ‘meditative echos [sic] culminate in a forceful and intense prayer of supplication to deliver us “from the Evil One.” It’s a cry from the depths for assurance and peace. It’s a cry we have all made at some point in the past few months.’ I have to say that during the past six months my own pleas for ‘deliverance’ have had a rather less abstract, and rather more political, target than the “Evil One”! But, I’m in absolute accord with the sentiment expressed - calm, reassurance and hope are in short supply at the moment.

Standing in a broad U-shaped formation, in an unidentified converted warehouse somewhere in California, Chanticleer metaphorically raised the roof - or at least shook the sloping skylights. The brickwork may not have had the elegance of Christopher Wren’s vaulted designs at the VOCES8 Centre at St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, but every iota of the cathedral-like resonance was exploited by the singers. It was really interesting to hear the male voices indulge in a wide, richly oscillating vibrato: in the UK, we’re so used to that English cathedral lucidity and refinement that even groups, such as VOCES8, who venture into varied repertory and embrace diversity of style, still - in comparison to the vibrant, pulsating resonance that we heard from Chanticleer - sound rather crystalline and reserved. In fact, the quasi-palpable richness was absolutely right for the deep religiosity of Rachmaninov’s setting, which reverberated with embracing visceral power.

Other immediately apparent differences between Chanticleer and the terrific ensembles - Stilo Antico, The Sixteen, VOCES8, The Gesualdo Six, I Fagiolini - from whom we have heard during the past ten weeks, were both the ethnic diversity of the ensemble and, paradoxically, their starched formality: those white bow ties and evening tails had been primped and preened to perfection (something that Barnaby Smith wryly observed in a post-concert Zoom-chat with the group).

But, Chanticleer were concerned to channel US roots in this programme. George Walker (1922-2018) was the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize (for Lilacs, in 1966). ‘O Praise the Lord’ (Psalm 117), Walker’s four-voice setting of Psalm 117 is direct and communicative, and Gerrod Pagenkopf was a striking countertenor soloist in the central lyrical episode. More strength and joy followed, in the form of Joseph H. Jennings’ arrangement of the traditional song, ‘Wondrous Love’. The group’s exploration of different sonorities that their Music Director Emeritus conjures - from focused unisons to the juxtaposition of high melodic celebrations against drone-like resonances, from homophonic sonic swells to imitative rainbows - was confident and meticulously delivered.

Then, we swerved back to the early seventeenth-century. Palestrina’s double choir motet, ‘Fratres, ego enim accepi’, which sets a text from the Offertory at Maundy Thursday, is both unusual, in that most of Palestrina’s motets are for five voices, and typical, as a characteristic representative of Roman polychoral liturgical majesty. I was struck by the operatic quality of Chanticleer’s ensemble sound: there was such a vibrant energy, which I think was driven by the bevvy of countertenors at the top, replacing the boy trebles or sopranos (often encouraged to sound like the former) that one hears in most UK vocal ensembles, in sacred or secular settings. This was terrifically muscular, positive singing (presumably transposed down a few notches?) which surged forwards with spiritual and musical conviction.

The Portuguese composer and theorist Vicente Lusitano is perhaps best known for the public dispute he had with Nicola Vicentino, during the 1550s (about improvised counterpoint and whether diatonic or mixed genera were desirable). The disputants wagered a pair of gold scudi and two ‘judges’, BartolomĂ© de Escobedo and Ghiselin Danckerts, both singers in the papal chapel of Julius III, were elected to declare a winner. Lusitano won the debate but ultimately lost the historical and musicological ‘argument’, for his music is little known and seldom heard. His ‘Ave, spes nostra’ was sung with treacly density and smoothness, the textural graininess of the lower tessitura showcasing both the colour of the low voices and the complex movements of the inner lines. These were flowing, rolling musical waters - with harmonic dips and darkness: a wonderful cushion of vocal sound.

Another of Jennings’ arrangements followed: the spiritual, ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’. Cortez Mitchell took the solo role, and sang from the heart, his surging vocalism supported by the shimmering hum of the collective. The sound was genuine and free, but a little at odds with the starched white collars! I was a bit doubtful about the promise that Steven Sametz’s Birds of Paradise (commissioned by Chanticleer in 2020) would turn each singer of the ensemble into a different bird to ‘tweet, flit, chirp’ and that the singers would ‘ruffle our feathers and flap our wings’, but in the event Sametz’s composition, which Chanticleer sang from memory) had a stunning visceral energy. The work’s physicality, and the lulls and rises, were hypnotic. Homophonic textures were decorated with swoops and swoons, trills and gurglings. What might have been a cacophonous excess was in fact a truly harmonious winged menagerie, to which baritone Matthew Knickman’s solo brought moments of calm.

Jean Sibelius’s Rakastava is best known in its arrangement for string orchestra. It was in fact written for a competition organized by the Helsinki University Chorus in 1894. Sibelius did not win. It’s one of the composer’s most substantial unaccompanied choral works but it’s also a composition of great intimacy, expressing yearning and nostalgia with equal erotic fervour. Once again singing from memory, Chanticleer seemed to conjure the force of many more voices than their actual number, and if the ‘Finnish’ spirit of the music was distant, then the group made the music their own. That said, bass-baritone Zachary Burgess evinced elegance in his monotone recitation - the text was clearly enunciated, the lower voices throbbed, and the upper radiance was elated - and tenor Brian Hinman was a fine soloist, sensitively shaping the repetitions and using his head voice most poignantly.

The repertoire presented was gathered into small groups of three or four works, often performed almost segue. I’m not sure that ‘Rescue’ by former Chanticleer member Matthew Alber was the ideal work to elide with Sibelius’s elegiac intensity, and I’m not really a fan of this sort of transatlantic saccharinity, but many are, and they will have enjoyed the fluidity and rhythmic strength of tenor Matthew Mazzola’s solo against the euphoric choric echoes, “Fly for a rescue”. Andrew Van Allsburg was the relaxed soloist in ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, though I felt this arrangement was not particularly successful emphasising as it did weighty waves of sound when it is melody and rhythm, not sonority, that give the song its character. Hinman’s arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)’ was more satisfying, highlighting both the rich layers of the collective sound and the beauty of the individual voices that stepped forward through the glowing texture.

The nineteenth-century American folksong, ‘Oh Shenandoah’ was a soaring, affecting encore. But, it wasn’t the last word from Live from London. In a pre-concert conversation, brothers Barnaby and Paul Smith (Artistic Director and Chief Executive of VOCES8 respectively) explained that there would be a Live from London Extra on 7th October, when the English Chamber Orchestra will perform live from Cadogan Hall, opening their 60th anniversary season with a special concert, introduced by Dame Janet Baker, in tribute to conductor and harpsichordist Raymond Leppard, who died in October 2019. (LfL season ticket holders are eligible for a discount.)

And there will be more. With a tear in his eye, Barnaby Smith reflected back over his, VOCES8’s and their fellow vocal ensembles’ experiences during the Live from London festival - an ambitious, innovative venture which has enabled singers to sing and audiences to connect with their music - but Smith also looked ahead, to Live from London - Christmas which will run from 1st December to 15th January, presenting performances by The Gabrieli Consort and Players, The Tallis Scholars, Take 6, I Fagiolini, London Adventist Chorale, AnĂșna, Amarcord, The Aeolians, Apollo5, and VOCES8 themselves. So, though times are bleak, there is something to look forward to after all.

Claire Seymour

Chanticleer : Tim Keeler (music director); Cortez Mitchell, Gerrod Pagenkopf, Kory Reid, Alan Reinhardt, Logan Shields, Adam Ward (countertenor); Brian Hinman, Matthew Mazzola, Andrew Van Allsburg (tenor), Andy Berry, Zachary Burgess, Matthew Knickman (baritone and bass)

Sergei Rachmaninoff - ‘Otche nash’, George Walker - ‘O Praise the Lord’ (Psalm 117), Traditional, arr. Joseph H. Jennings - ‘Wondrous Love’, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - ‘Fratres, ego enim accepi’, Vicente Lusitano - ‘Ave, spes nostra’, Traditional Spiritual, arr J.H. Jennings - ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’, Steven Sametz - ‘Birds of Paradise’ (commissioned by Chanticleer in 2020), Jean Sibelius - Rakastava, Matthew Alber arr. David Maddux - ‘Rescue’, George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam arr. D. Maddux, as performed by M. Alber ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’, Stevie Wonder arr. Brian Hinman - ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)’

Recorded broadcast, from San Francisco; Saturday 3rd October 2020.