Orchestra of voices wows Ravinia audience

Chanticleer performed at Ravinia last Tuesday evening.
Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Chanticleer is sometimes called an orchestra of voices. A dozen members strong, this all male vocal ensemble is named after the clear singing rooster in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The group has been making music since 1978, when it was founded by Louis Botto, and had a big breakthrough in 1999 when they won the 1999 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance for their CD “Colors of Love,” a collection of contemporary choral works.

Chanticleer came to the Martin Theater at the Ravinia Festival last Tuesday and offered a wide-ranging performance of music from Palestrina to Duke Ellington, including a rousing work from a local composer.

The ensemble was highly polished throughout the evening, singing with admirable clarity, offering performances that were nuanced as well as bracing, touching as well as humorous. They walked briskly on stage in white ties and tails and grabbed the audience from the very first notes.

The concert opened with Palestrina’s “Gaude gloriosa,” which was effective particularly due to the gentle approach taken. This was followed by “Surrexit pastor bonus” by Lassus, which was imbued with love and life. “O Clap Your Hands” by Gibbons was startling, as the sound seemed so much bigger than a dozen voices could command. It had engaging moving parts and well-focused details.

From time to time throughout the concert, the 12 singers would reconfigure themselves on stage, singing primarily from a large semi-circle. These physical rearrangements were crisp and efficient, so that the singing was never interrupted except very briefly.

William Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus” had pacing that showed seriousness of purpose and featured impressively beautiful low bass notes as anchors. This was immediately juxtaposed with Steven Stucky’s “Whispers,” commissioned by Chanticleer for their 25th anniversary in which the composer uses fragments of Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus” as a starting point for a song set to Walt Whitman’s “Whispers of Heavenly Death.” A whispering effect is created through dissonance, with sound stacked on sound. This unusual piece was fascinating.

“Nude Descending a Staircase” by Allen Shearer featured shards of sound, with numerous shifts of emphasis and rhythm to capture the light as well as jagged edges of Duchamp’s famous painting.

Thomas Morley’s well known “Now is the Month of Maying” (in an arrangement by Evan Price) was unhurried and light with clear sounding of all the various parts. “Stelle, vostra mercè l’eccelse sfere” from the choral song cycle “Sirens” by Mason Bates had particularly song work from the middle voices and throughout the phrasing took you on a joyful ride, which ended with a light touch and a smile.

Arcadelt’s “Il bianco e dolce cigno” proceeded at a stately tempo and was sung with great earnestness. William Hawley’s “Io son la Primavera” was both beautiful and subtle.

Three Male Choruses by Richard Strauss gave the group a chance to display their splendid storytelling ability. While never flashy, they drew out the most persuasive moments and kept the audience’s attention.

Steven Sametz’s “I Have Had Singing” was more sentimental than other works on the program, but it was treated with seriousness and the interesting musical ideas were effectively drawn out.

Kirby Shaw’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime” was a real winner. Cortez Mitchell was the soloist and his voice was captivating from the very start. The final high note got the audience hollering their approval.

“In Winter’s Keeping” by Jackson Hill opened like the wailing wind. It draws on Japanese musical ideas and had an almost hypnotic effect.

Stacy Garrop’s arrangement of “Járbă, máré járbă” was full of high energy throughout and the audience had a chance to applaud not only the performance but the composer as well, who was in the audience.

Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” was good fun, with the singers creating orchestral sounds (for example, trombones) and engaging in amusing theatrics and footwork.

The final work on the program was Straight Street by James Woodie Alexander and Jesse Whitaker. It was full of bounce and enthusiasm.

Before a brief encore, the leader of the group announced that their longest standing member, bass Eric Alatorre, would be retiring from the group immediately after the concert. Memorable not only for his resonant low notes and remarkable vocal flexibility, Alatorre is memorable too for his Salvadore Dali-like facial hair and devilish smile. “Lately I Find Myself Gazing at Stars” gave him a last chance to sing with the ensemble which has been so much a part of his life for over a quarter century.