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Celebrating the American Spirit

New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art
04/15/2009 -  
Traditional hymns and liturgical works, songs, folk songs, madrigals by: W. Billings, A. M. Cagle, J. G. de Padilla, J. de Lienas, P.D.Q. Bach (P. Schickele), S. Barber, B. M. Davids, D. Conte, E. Whitacre, S. Foster, and G. Gershwin.
Chanticleer Vocal Ensemble: 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) Joseph H. Jennings (Artistic Advisor), Matthew Oltman (Music Director)

The Chanticleer Ensemble (© Lisa Kohler)

American exceptionalism is a concept that has been misunderstood and widely derided. Some have seen it, particularly in recent years, as the arrogant mind-set of the world’s only remaining superpower. I take a different view. I see America as unique among nations in that it was founded upon an idea -- a dream that people with no shared ethnicity, background , religion, or history could come together and form one nation. Similarly, American music has been fed by a multiplicity of traditions, aesthetics and styles. It’s an amalgam in the best sense of the word. Last night, Chanticleer, the superb a capella vocal ensemble, celebrated that diversity in a program that spanned the 250 years since the creation of the earliest American secular composition, My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free. This work, written by Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was not included in the program. Nonetheless, there was much to discover and to savor.

The setting for the concert was the magnificent Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Built by the Emperor Augustus, it is the only complete Egyptian temple in the western hemisphere. This gift by the government of Egypt to the people of the United States was dismantled and removed from its original site on the Nile and then reassembled in New York. The massive stone walls and stone floor produce echoes that can be problematic for other types of musical performances, but they served to enhance this one. The reverberations created a sense of timelessness. In particular, when they sang a version of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep My Child from his Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, which the composer adapted specifically for Chanticleer, their pure and beautifully blended voices seemed to float through the air into almost infinite space.

Other highlights of the evening included two ravishing polyphonic works dating from the 17th century by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and Juan de Lienas. Sophisticated music making in the Spanish regions of the Americas predated corresponding activity in the English regions by more than 100 years.

The program closed with the most moving performance of Shenandoah that I have ever heard and three songs from the African-American experience, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, with an exquisite soprano solo, and two spirituals, Rocking My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham and Keep Your Hand on the Plow, both of which were absolutely glorious.

Chanticleer, now in its thirty-first year, sings more than 100 concerts each season, in the United States and round the world. Its repertoire is vast, extending from medieval music to jazz, gospel and contemporary music. Over the years, Chanticleer’s membership has changed but its signature sound remains the same. This season, the group will tour in 27 states. In May, they will visit five cities in China. July finds them in Ireland, and, in August, they will perform at music festivals in France, Germany, Poland and Latvia.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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