Chanticleer and VIR reviews: Testostertones

Venerable San Francisco choir and new Portland vocal ensemble showcase the beauty of men's voices.

by JEFF WINSLOW

We in Portland are blessed to be so close to San Francisco, the home of world class male choir Chanticleer, and doubly blessed that our Friends of Chamber Music embraces the group in their mission. They are turning Chanticleer’s short jaunt north into a yearly event, and it’s always eagerly anticipated, as packed houses have shown. This year’s visit, the last Friday in March at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, fully lived up to expectations, as the choir applied their trademark precision and clarity to selections ranging across the last 500 years of classical music, a nod to the Middle Ages, and as usual, several lively arrangements of spirituals, folk and pop tunes. They seemed to take fewer risks than on last year’s program, or maybe they were just running a tighter ship this year. There was certainly no dearth of challenging works beautifully presented.

Chanticleer

Chanticleer

The opening early music set featured the Spanish Renaissance masters Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero, that darling of the Counter-Reformation Palestrina, and a respectful yet intriguing adaptation of medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen’s “O frondens virga.” (The adapter, who split the ravishing ending into many more parts than Hildegard would have likely contemplated, wasn’t credited.)

I generally prefer Victoria over Palestrina, the intense Spaniard over the reserved and lofty Italian, but Chanticleer’s selections turned the tables on me. Palestrina’s Marian motet “Gaude Gloriosa à 5” immediately and joyously took flight, its counterpoint almost bubbling like meadowlarks. The Spaniards seemed restrained by comparison, although Guerrero’s “Ave Virgo sanctissima” featured repeated high, sighing entries in the top voices, and the group’s (male) sopranos shone expressively every time.

Secular works of the time included Andrea Gabrieli’s “Thyrsis desired death…” and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Ah me, if you’re so fond…,” both on a universal guy theme: what gals won’t do and what to say to change that. Even Chanticleer’s expert performance failed to breathe much life into Gabrieli’s labored double entendres – my mind kept wandering to Monty Python’s “Nudge nudge, wink wink” sketch. Monteverdi had a happier way with the subject. By focusing on repeated sighs (“oimé”), setting them off clearly against doleful minor-key contrapuntal and harmonic surroundings, he made the point with much less fuss. Not that it’s easy to sing, though the group made it sound that way. The final line, “thousands and thousands of sweet ‘oimés,'” descended through pungent dissonances to a surprise ending in the major key. Maybe she just smiled and promised to “be back in a moment.”

The mood shifted from the romantic to the Romantic, with Mendelssohn settings of those quintessential German Romantic poets, Eichendorff (“Schöne Fremde” or “A Strange Land’s Beauty”) and Heine (“On the far horizon…”) The Eichendorff especially was quintessentially Mendelssohn, with plenty of parallel thirds in triplets, barely perceptible glances at foreign keys, and arrivals at local keys which sounded a little too pleased with themselves. The Heine was like a pale, lugubriously downtempo version of it. There was just one catch. Only the Heine was by Felix; the Eichendorff was by his sister Fanny. A juxtaposition like this really makes one wonder if Felix’s famous fecundity owed a little something to sisterly assistance.

A subtly delicious late Johannes Brahms setting of the equally Romantic Rückert’s poem “Vigil I.” (Nachtwache I.) was more challenging, sliding into any number of keys – lots of sighing here too – before fetching up on an extraordinary dissonance just before the final resolution to the home key. Chanticleer held steady, seemingly tuning each chromatic combination for maximum sweetness.

Maurice Ravel’s well-known Three Songs (Trois Chansons) adroitly cleaned out the German cobwebs. In the wickedly unromantic “Nicolette,” the title character avoids the big bad wolf and the tall handsome stranger to fall into the arms of the dirty old, but rich, man. The performance was agile, accurate, and full of sly nuances. Not that deep emotion is missing from the set. In the second, three birds of paradise in the colors of the French flag visit a woman whose beloved has gone to war; the last bird conveys a presentiment of his death. (Ravel wrote the set during World War I.) The micro-drama is played out in four solos that go straight to the heart; in places they are accompanied by simple drones and descending octaves. The sensitive performance somehow managed to make this more austere setting every bit as moving as Brahms’s full harmonies. In the hyper third song, the old men and women of the village try to scare the youngsters into staying out of the woods with a manic recitation of all the monsters that live there, only to be blown off by the youngsters, who say they only stay out ’cause it’s dull – the old folks scared all the monsters off. The basses had a little trouble making their lower notes speak at the crazy fast pace the group took, but they all stuck together and the audience laughed out loud at the end.

After a quick encore of the Brahms mood tinged by the Renaissance, in the form of Samuel Barber’s “Let Down the Bars, O Death,” Chanticleer dug into a generous helping of recently composed works: “’Wait’ Fantasy” by Steve Hackman – modestly listed as “arranger” of a work incorporating both Emily Dickinson texts and material from the song “Wait” by the French band M83, “Give Me Hunger” by Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop, and Eric Whitacre’s “A Boy and a Girl.” The last made the weakest impression, with its rather too pervasive use of two musical intervals – it may as well be titled “A Ninth and a Tenth”. But the other two are rich works full of variety.

Chanticleer commissioned Hackman’s work, and he took full musical advantage, filling it with close harmony and other showy turns from the group’s playbook. They returned the favor with a tight, crackling performance. Hackman likely could have written just as effective a work on the subject of time, death and eternity from Dickinson poems alone, without reference to M83’s rather bland music and clichéd lyrics. He could have called himself “composer” and potentially saved himself some hassle – five songwriters share credit! But no doubt he likes the song.

The most satisfying new work overall was Garrop’s. In the poem “At a Window,” Carl Sandburg defies the gods to bring on every hardship they’ve got – but also please leave him a little love, which he may see approaching of an evening as he looks out the window. Garrop’s music opens with a relentless repetitive harangue on the opening words, “give me hunger,” and spins into a wild incantation punctuated by swooping dissonances. In an ironic parody of a selfish, demanding child, Sandburg calls down a litany of woes from the gods upon himself, and Garrop in response builds to a thrilling climax on the words “GIVE ME.” After a dramatic pause, the music begins again, softly, and starting with the words “But leave me a little love,” a series of tender solos is passed between choir members, over an accompaniment of slow, close harmonies, and the work takes on a subdued blues feel. The tone is serious, but all demand, all begging has gone out of it. The close harmonies wax ecstatic where the poet compares his approaching love to “one little wandering, western star / thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.” But at “Let me go to the window” the music simplifies to the most direct utterance yet. Sandburg looks into the eyes of his gods, saying unassumingly, I need this. There is another fervent, almost prayerful climax, but simplicity seemingly born of great warmth returns at the final words, “and know the coming / of a little love.” Through all the work’s many moods and challenges, Chanticleer performed with a precision and expressiveness that showed it off at its finest. Neither composer nor audience could have asked for more.

Following tradition, the group finished off with a selection of arrangements – folk songs, jazz, pop, and spirituals. The crowd always loves them and this year was no exception. Notable were the restrained Alice Parker / Robert Shaw arrangement of the old French ballad “L’amour de moy…,” where the group showed what it could do in a traditional male choir sound, and two jazz arrangements: Jorge Calandrelli’s of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic “No More Blues,” and Darmon Meader’s of Wally De Backer’s (better known as Gotye) “I Feel Better.” The group seemed to take a special pleasure in nailing all the jazzy harmonies.

Sometimes late Romantic, 20th century, and contemporary choral music involves harmony even harder to tune up than jazz. Missing from this year’s program were works that challenged the group hard enough to remind us that they’re human, such as the Gustav Mahler and John Corigliano works they sang in Portland last year. Either that, or they just stayed in the groove from beginning to end so I didn’t notice. Either way, they justified The New Yorker’s estimate: “the world’s reigning male chorus.”

A Case of VIR

With such a polished and assured show fresh in my memory, I was by turns curious, skeptical, and most of all, prepared to be forgiving for my first exposure to Portland’s new men’s choir, VIR, the first Sunday in April at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church. The urge to compare was only slightly moderated by the fact that VIR limits itself to the traditional ranges (tenor/baritone/bass), doing without Chanticleer’s male altos or sopranos. Adding to the suspense: the program started right off with a contemporary work – only the second performance ever of a work less than two years off the desk of local composer and Lewis & Clark College professor Michael Johanson, whose work I’ve heard enough to have a pretty good idea just how challenging a new one might be. (Johanson and I are both members of Cascadia Composers, and we also share a fondness for sonorities that tend to take choirs out of their comfort zones.)

VIR

VIR

The work is “Song of the Son,”on a poem from the groundbreaking 1923 novel Cane by the mixed-race writer Jean Toomer — one of the first literary works to refrain from stereotypes in presenting the experience of African-American slaves in the South. The poem is rich with natural imagery and a vague sense of longing, which Johanson conveys with a harmonic palette redolent of flowering late Romanticism, interspersed with mysteriously folk-like open harmonies and delicately spun two-part counterpoint. If it seems too beautiful for anything to do with slavery, Johanson can be forgiven, for Toomer offers such luscious sounding lines as “And let the valley carry it along,””One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes / An everlasting song, a singing tree,” and “Caroling softly songs of slavery.” The poem’s structure, with its tantalizing near-repeats, is also subtly underlined by the many varied and elaborated returns of the music’s opening statement. Toomer’s longing is not, of course, in any way nostalgic, but an attempt to come to terms with the full impact of his African ancestry. At the emotional climax, he compares slaves to “dark purple ripened plums, squeezed, and bursting…” and here Johanson takes the choir into a landscape of anguished, almost queasy chromaticism.

It was the only slice of this complex work the choir couldn’t quite handle, the only passage that seemed to drift in confusion. They soon got back together, and elsewhere, in harmonies both close and open, in counterpoint both full and spare, in launching phrases or deftly rounding them off, they performed like a band of brothers. It was a good sign of things to come.

The challenges were much easier in Gil Seeley’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Shenandoah.” The group aced its delicate, pulsing textures, and a magical conclusion that seemed to evaporate into the heavens. Seeley, who founded Oregon Repertory Singers and over four decades turned it into a Portland institution, and who shared directing duties for the evening with baritone Adam Steele, seemed to fully enjoy himself and the lovely sounds his direction called forth, including baritone Dan Harmic’s opening and closing solos.

With Portland composer John Vergin’s “When You Are Old and Gray” from 1993, on the Yeats poem from 1892, the choir returned to a dense harmonic world full of tricky chromatic shifts and purple tone painting. The work felt more strongly etched than Johanson’s, even blocky or rugged, perhaps a response to the iron craft which underlies even the most spontaneous-sounding Yeats. Striking moments included a gaudy shift climaxing “loved your beauty with love false” before the resolution of “or true,” and a centrifugal conclusion on “crowd of stars,” which almost seemed to burst the work’s bounds. The group carefully tracked each twist and turn of such harmonies, and every word could be clearly understood.

As if in penitence for such sensuous displays, the group next turned to three works inspired by the biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah. Flemish composer Marbrianus de Orto’s “Lamentatio Jeremie Prophete” comes from a time (1506) when composers in western Europe were still enamored enough of the relatively new art of chord progression that they were content to build whole works out of it. Between the relatively simple harmony and the many phrase repetitions – it seems a jeremiad has to run on for a spell – the group seemed to relax a bit too much after the Vergin, and the sense of ensemble, which is highly exposed in this kind of music, was a little ragged at first. However they soon pulled themselves together again.

Gil Seeley founded and co-directs VIR.

Gil Seeley founded and co-directs VIR.

Their assurance carried over into Part I of English composer Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah, which was fortunate because this work is a stunner. While in de Orto we seemed to hear a company of fat priests dutifully intoning rebukes while half thinking about their next meal, Tallis, an unreformed Catholic during the reign of Elizabeth I, invoked a terrified crowd wailing from one side to another in fitful waves. Yet the group delivered hushed tones as well, in its final plea to Jerusalem (or perhaps Westminster). The performance invited comparison with Chanticleer, a master of this domain, and didn’t come up far short. One interesting difference, besides VIR’s more traditional male choir sound – no altos or sopranos – is that while Chanticleer seems to strive for as uniform a sound as possible from top to bottom, VIR glories in the characters of the various male voice types. That intensified the sense of a wailing crowd and the emotional weight of the music in a way that a group such as Chanticleer might find hard to match.

VIR found the next work, the US premiere of 24-year-old composer Patrick Murray’s recent “Book of Lamentations,” harder to get a handle on. The composer didn’t give them a lot of help. Despite many colorful details and fluent choral effects, the wordy prayer text, set almost entirely at a slow two syllables per second regardless of meaning or syntax, gave the work a somewhat plodding, monotonous feel. To be fair, he had the good sense to indicate “Tempo rubato” in the score, and more rubato (expressive variation in tempo) from the group would have helped, but two little words are no substitute for compositional finesse.

It was high time for something completely different, and after intermission, we got it in the form of Victor Paranjoti’s “Dravidian Dithyramb,” an example of his mid-20th century integration of Western and Indian musical materials. Forget laments, forget long, drawn-out incantations; it was time to party! Some of the men made a whirling melody reminiscent of the Carnatic music of south India, while the rest vocalized a rhythmic background as if they were drums and tambourines. The work gave the group an opportunity to show off their agility and attacks. That’s especially challenging for low voices, even in a piece such as this with no text to put across, but the group did it well and the audience was delighted.

Ethan Sperry (the current director of Oregon Repertory Singers as well as choral programs at Portland State University) doesn’t have any Indian ancestry as far as I know, but his recent (2006) “Ramkali” was even farther on the Indian side of Western / Indian fusion than Paranjoti’s work. In the initial slow section (corresponding roughly to a Hindustani alap), which I would have liked to enjoy longer, some of the men imitated the droning sound of the Indian tambura, complete with its aureole of high harmonics, while the rest intoned a hypnotic exposition of the raga Ramkali. The rest of the work was a wild dance that again let VIR show off their agility, including complex, infectious rhythms with shouted syllables. The crowd loved it.

In between, Sergei Rachmaninov’s famous “Vocalise” provided slow, contemplative contrast, with Deborah Benke, the only female voice heard during the entire concert, doing the honors on the melody. The rich, close harmonies in the men were not always as clear as they could have been, and a slower tempo would have given the piece more emotional impact, but Benke’s lovely wordless solo had enough magic to carry the performance. Nor was the work out of place between two Indian-influenced ones. The melody of “Vocalise,” like so many Rachmaninov melodies, spins out gradually, taking its time exploring various parts of major and minor scales, like a singer exploring a raga during an alap. During such music we seem to hear the Asiatic side of the Russian soul.

Ultimately, however, VIR came to rest firmly grounded in the European classical tradition, from a time when this was dominated by the music of Germany. Six works spread across nearly a century, from Franz Schubert in 1822, through Felix Mendelssohn (1833), Robert Schumann (1847), Josef Rheinberger (1889), and Max Reger in 1904, capped the program. Male choirs were all the rage in German-speaking communities throughout this period, with thousands of amateur groups active. Accordingly, composers kept their music for these groups fairly straightforward in harmony and counterpoint – think of the Christmas carols “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on a tune by Mendelssohn or “Angels We Have Heard on High” (though the latter is actually French in origin). Even Reger, renowned for complexity, restrained himself in works written for such groups.

Not surprisingly, VIR sounded totally comfortable in this repertory, and four of them – Michael Hilton, Tim Wright, Paul Sadilek, and Paul Elison – even rose to the challenge of singing Rheinberger’s “Ave Maria,” not the simplest of the six works by any means, one voice to a part. The earliest work, Schubert’s “Love,” may have been the trickiest, featuring one of the composer’s patented shifts to an unexpected key which the group rendered sublimely. And they finished strongly with Mendelssohn’s “Two Spiritual Choruses,” op. 115. But the high point of the set had to be Schumann’s “The rose stood washed in dew” for male choir and soloist. Rich harmonies were beautifully tuned, whether sung loud or soft, and Adam Steele’s pure baritone shone in the solo part. Again VIR’s performance invited comparison with Chanticleer, both in the sureness of their ensemble on the one hand, and the distinctiveness of the different voice types on the other, though the accompanying voices were appropriately well blended.

After such a strong ending, the audience response was enthusiastic, and it was time to cut loose. Bill Douglas’s “Rock Etude #6” doesn’t have any conventional harmony or counterpoint at all, but it’s got lots of snappy ever-shifting rhythms and what Igor Stravinsky once called “fine strong syllables.” Douglas wrote these funk-influenced etudes in the 70’s, but they probably remind today’s audiences more of hip hop. VIR may be a bunch of (live) white males, but they put it across with style and the audience loved it.

As should be obvious by now, there was no need for me to be skeptical about VIR and there was little to forgive. With such fond memories in mind, I’m very much looking forward to the group’s next performance, tonight (Dec. 30) at 7:30 PM at First Christian Church in downtown Portland. Composers represented range from John Vergin again, Seattle’s Eric Banks (director of the The Esoterics, who have given stellar performances in Portland themselves), and contemporary choral rock star Eric Whitacre, back to early masters Pérotin and Guillaume Dufay. If you like choral music, brave the cold and come on out.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer. His choral work “The Sun Never Says” has been performed locally in recent years by both the Portland Vocal Consort and Resonance Ensemble.

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