Chanticleer and VIR reviews: Testostertones

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


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.



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.”