Chanticleer Christmas at the Mission

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For 40 years the exquisite blend of the voices of Chanticleer have entertained, recorded and traveled the world. This eloquent and elegant group brought A Chanticleer Christmas to the Carmel Mission Basilica on Friday, December 21st. Founded in 1978 by Louis Botto and named for the “clear singing” rooster in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, they were first known for interpretations of Renaissance music. However, this group is as likely to also include jazz, folk, and contemporary choral works. 

Out of the darkness came the light of voices from the back of the Mission. Beginning with the deep resonance of the lower voices then complimented by the trebles, Chanticleer processioned in with the plainsong Corde natus ex parentis. Five stanzas of a 37-stanza poem Hymnus omnis horae (“Hymn for every hour”) were used beginning with “Of the Father’s love begotten.” Pairs of same text by different composers followed. Sixteenth century composers Francesco Corteccia and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina created beautiful treatments of Surge, illuminare Jerusalem– especially the Palestrina double choir. The second set of same text, Quem vidistis, pastores, revealed vastly different composition styles. The 20th-century Francis Poulenc version was paired with the Orlando di Lasso 16thcentury one. Yet each in its own way conveyed the serenity and jubilation of Christmas. Separating these two sets was the Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s late 16th-centuryAngelus ad pastores ait. This was another lovely setting of the angel speaking to the shepherds. Musically the descent of the angel could be felt.

French carols with contemporary arrangers gave the audience a delicious taste of traditional French melodies. Mark Sirett’s arrangement of D’ou viens-tu, bergere? took this popular lullaby carol and created a conversation between a young shepherd girl returning from the manger and villagers. Even a shy young girl answered their questions in detail worthy of a scribe. The second traditional French carol, “Here, mid the Ass and Oxen Mild,” had the inimitable touch of Alice Parker and Robert Shaw.

The timeless Tomas Luis de Victoria version of O magnum mysteriumsimply floated and enveloped the listener in that great mystery that the “animals should see the new-born Lord in a manger.” The audience was treated to a world premier performance of Peter Bloesch’s “Behold a Simple, Tender Babe.” Bloesch is a composer who appears to be able to do it all – no less in taking inspiration from Robert Southwell’s poetry to create this easily imagined scene through his music. 

A Chanticleer Christmas program would not be complete without Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria.This has become such a favorite tradition yet done as fresh as though for the first time. This was followed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Dyevo, raduisya.What could be a more fulfilling selection for Christmas than a version of Ave Maria?This is part of the  “All Night Vigil” and one that is a standard with choral groups. What group better to perform these vocally lush harmonies!

The last set came all too quickly but also eagerly anticipated. This collection of mostly traditional carols included “Up Good Christian Folk,” O Tannebaum, “The Holly and the Ivy,” “What Child is This?” and ”Silent Night.” Lastly, this stellar group launched into Music Director Emeritus Joseph Jennings traditional Spirituals arrangement. With all the verve and nothing held back – even with another performance following this one – this stirring set could move even the hardest of hearts and music souls.

Chanticleer defines the ultimate in choral ensemble. These men all have impressive education and performance backgrounds. Awards and accolades abound for this noted group as well they should. If not familiar with Chanticleer, help yourself to a recording or YouTube selection. Their sound is mesmerizing and the pleasure of being part of the audience at one of their performances is not to be taken lightly.

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