Tonight in San Francisco the men’s chorus Chanticleer will celebrate its 40th anniversary at the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building. The event will combine a gala concert with a reunion bringing past Chanticleer singers together with the current crew. For those unable to attend, this past Friday Warner Classics released Chanticleer’s 40th Anniversary album, Then and There, Here and Now. This anniversary season will also include two European tours, visits to 23 states, and 27 concerts focused around the San Francisco Bay Area.
As an “ambassador” for a cappella singing, Chanticleer has cultivated a diverse repertoire, which is about as broad as the scope of the touring plans over the last 40 years. The nineteen tracks on the Anniversary album definitely give a good account of the extent of that scope. Since the earliest compositions are from the sixteenth century, the full span accounts for about half a millennium of music-making.
When it comes to introducing such a repertoire to those unacquainted with it, Chanticleer probably could not be a better vehicle for “ambassadorship.” However, for those who take their listening seriously, there are any number of ensembles that can be enjoyed through recordings and touring schedules that tend to take a more historically informed and scholarly approach to repertoire. Such groups tend to focus on a particular period of history with its own characteristic performance techniques, and the diversity of those techniques is best appreciated by accumulating representative recordings that match each period with a well-informed ensemble of practitioners.
Where Chanticleer is concerned, they tend to have their own characteristic sound and style that cuts across the full extent of their repertoire. One result is that the more recent selections tend to ring truer to their sources than those from a more distant past. This can be particularly jarring when a madrigal for a group of solo voices is replaced by an arrangement for a full chorus, which is the fate of the selection by Thomas Morley on the Anniversary album.
Things turn from jarring to annoying, however, when the repertoire ventures into folk and pop styles. Settings of spirituals consistently have the sharper edges of their original sources significantly blunted. Then when you get to jukebox favorites (for those who remember what a jukebox is), the treatments of “Summertime,” “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (as transliterated from the Yiddish but, on the track listing, given the Germanized title from the sheet music edition, “Bei mir bist du schön”), and “Straight Street” are positively cringe-inducing. My only concert encounter with the group was in March of 2014 when they appeared as guest artists with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and I lost count of the number of times I cringed!
De gustibus non est disputandum!