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An Orchestra of Voices Sings to a Choir of Angels

New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
12/03/2008 -  and 4, 7 December 2008
Chanticleer: A Chanticleer Christmas
Joseph H. Jennings (Artistic Advisor), Matthew Oltman (Music Director), Dylan Hostetter, Michael McNeil, Gregory Peebles (soprano), Cortez Mitchell, Alan Reinhardt, Adam Ward (alto), Brian Hinman, Matthew Oltman, Todd Wedge (tenor), Eric Alatorre, Gabriel Lewis-O’Connor, Jace Wittig (baritone and bass)

On a cold winter evening in Manhattan, I rounded the corner of East 80th Street to see Central Park swathed in darkness and, just beyond, a blaze of light that is the massive illuminated beaux arts facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At times like this, the Museum has always seemed to me a rather magical place – a treasure house from which everyone had gone home except the security guards and some very fortunate concert goers. I walked through the silent and deserted Greek and Roman galleries passing on my way gravestones and vases, torsos without heads and heads without torsos, some mere fragments but all beautiful, and all existing in a world that is both long past and strangely ever-present.

Soon the ancient world made way for the middle ages. The site of the evening’s concert was the medieval sculpture hall, recently restored and hosting not just Chanticleer and the sold-out audience that had come to hear them, but also a new and perfectly timed exhibition, Choir of Angels, which features the Museum’s collection of 14th and 15th century Florentine and Sienese choral manuscript illustrations (called illuminations).

As is the custom this time of year, a twenty foot Christmas tree adorned with 18th century Neapolitan angels and cherubs, also graced the hall. Surrounding the tree were dozens of realistic creche figures and, just behind them, a beautiful 18th century choir screen from the Spanish Cathedral of Valladoilid.

The audience was seated on chairs facing the tree. Flanking us were pillars with 15th century Burgundian statues of both the saints and the Virgin and child. The hall is open on three sides, its arches, leading to yet even more treasures.

Suddenly, what sounded like etheral voices filled the air, echoing around the hall, coming closer and closer; the singers entered from the sides and from the rear. The sound was full, rich, and clear. And then there they were in front of the tree, 12 men, singing 15th century plain song, a hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel. In the dim light, the statutes which were created around the same time as the music, almost seemed to be listening.

Chanticleer, named for the clear singing rooster in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, was founded in San Francisco in 1978 by musicology student Louis Botto, specifically to give voice to long neglected music from the Renaissance period. Since then, their schedule, remit, and geographical reach have greatly expanded; they now sing more than 100 concerts each year, with a repertoire extending from the middle ages through the centuries to jazz, gospel, and modern music.

For me, the highlight of this evening’s program were two powerful and moving works from eastern Europe – the Armenian Komitas Vartabed’s Bazmutyunq and the Russian Pavel Chesnokov’s My Soul Magnifies the Lord, Opus 40, No. 1. The works of Komitas (also called Gomidas), an ethnomusicologist and composer, have been undegoing a bit of a highly deserved revival recently; in October, Isabel Bayrakdarian presented an entire concert of his music at Carnegie Hall. This piece was based on Gomidas’ research into the melodies of the Badarak, the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church. The Chesnokov piece had an almost ethereal beauty and showed off the basses to great advantage.

The Chanticleer singers possess an extraordinary range. The six countertenors divide into altos and sopranos. The degree to which the male sopranos sounded like females was astonishing.

The program was quite imaginative. There were three versions of Alma redemptoris mater -- the first plainsong, the second by an anonymous 14th century English composer, and the third by the 16th century master Tomas Luis de Victoria. The Victoria setting had wonderful contrapuntal writing that was exquisitely sung, with the acoustics of the setting amplifying the sense of musical space. There were two selections by Praetorius. As I listened to the first of these, En! Natus est Emanuel, a highly animated, dance-like celebration of the Christ child as the wondrous boy, I could not help stealing a glance at the Madonna and child seemingly looking on just above me.

The concert closed with a medley of Christmas spirituals.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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