Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Welcoming back Chanticleer

Some of Spivey Hall's happiest days are when Chanticleer sings here. The twelve talented men of Chanticleer are tremendous audience favorites everywhere they perform -- based in San Francisco, they travel the world -- but they are especially welcome at Spivey Hall, where they sing frequently, to our great delight.

Chanticleer's a cappella artistry is ideally suited to the intimate size and acoustical wonders of Spivey Hall -- we can see the singers easily, we can hear them beautifully. Our connection to their music-making is complete, and thus immensely satisfying. In this magnificent setting, we can appreciate every nuance of what they sing, be it a 17th-century sacred Mexican work, a favorite American shape-note song, a new work written especially for Chanticleer, or a rousing spiritual.

Such a variety of music as this awaits us this Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18.

Friday's program is "Wondrous Free," which traces interlacing traditions of American song. The title is taken from the first line of what may be the earliest surviving American secular composition, "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free" -- with words by Doctor Parnell, and music by a friend of George Washington and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Hopkinson. Craig Russell writes poetically in his introduction to this program:

American song reflects its geography and its histories; it is not a singular path nor a story of a single people, but instead is a flowing, ever-evolving stream of peoples and stories that weave together much like the tributaries of the Mississippi. And like that river, it is broad, awe-inspiring, and always changing in its course. American song, too, is like the American landscape: it can be rugged like the Rockies, contemplative and reverent like the swatch of colors painted across the Blue Ridge, kinetically rhythmic like the trains on their rails as they run into Chicago, or serenely introspective like the waves that wash ashore on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Like Montana's "big sky," American song has a breadth of horizon that seems to have no limiting boundary.

The program is in eight sections, spanning a group of early American songs; Mexican works of the 1600s; two humorous madrigals by P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742)?, "edited with feeling by Professor Schickele," namely, "The Queen to Me a Royal Pain Doth Give" and "My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth," guaranteed to lighten the mood of the evening, incite some smirking and laughter, and linger in your memory (whether you want them to or not!); and the three gorgeous songs of the young Samuel Barber's Reincarnations, inspired by Irish poetry.

Plus there's a work by the celebrated Native American composer Brent Michael Davids (b.1959), Night Chant, a prelude to love-making set to a movingly simple and direct text in Mohican words and Native American "vocables," the evocative translation of which I can't help but transcribe:

I have something I want to say to you.
It's night. Let's sleep together.
We're beautiful. We're beautiful.
It's right. It's right. It's right. It's right.
My heart is at peace.
My heart is at peace.

The program continues with two other contemporary American works: The Homecoming (In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr.) by David Conte to text by John Stirling Walker (composed for Chanticleer) and "Sleep, My Child" from Eric Whitacre's musical/opera Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings (specially transcribed for Chanticleer). Following a set of Stephen Foster songs (which no program surveying American song could be without), Chanticleer will close the program with a selection of folk songs, popular songs and spirituals to be announced.

And that's just the FIRST program. On Saturday, we have "Divine Tapestry," which includes the early American and Mexican works that open Friday's program, but then explores connections between plainsong (Gregorian chant) and historically important composers Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450-1521), going on to embrace three very different Russian, English and German sacred works by Pavel Chesnoskov, John Tavener, and Franz Biebel, and concluding with three American spirituals -- "Rock a My Soul," "Deep River," and "Hold On!" -- sung as only Chanticleer can sing them, the first and last in arrangements by Chanticleer's esteemed artistic advisor (and Georgia native), Joseph Jennings.

This extraordinary program is performed without intermission, which I believe is done to heighten the intensity of the musical experience in store for us. Spivey Hall dedicates this program to the memory of Dorothy ("Dotty") Davis -- like her husband, Wilkes (now living in Florida), a passionate fan of Chanticleer, an ardent Spivey Hall subscriber, and a Charter Member of The Friends of Spivey Hall. Dotty, herself a singer, who passed away in October 2007, truly cherished Chanticleer. We'll be thinking of her this Saturday night, and I'm sure she'll be with us in spirit.

As if you couldn't tell, I'm also an enthusiastic member of the Chanticleer fan club. What an incredible range of musicianship these two programs require. What fascinating juxtapositions of works they contain. And what phenomenal stylistic versatility Chanticleer commands! These singers are simply amazing.

When first I received the two programs' repertoire details, I got very excited. Perhaps too excited...because in response to earlier versions of our promotion of these concerts, I received some feedback indicating we might be dwelling too heavily on the historical and musicological aspects of the programs -- to put it bluntly, "too much information" -- which may have been a bit hard for people to digest.

That was hardly my objective! Don't get me wrong, and don't let the details distract you. The main attraction is -- and always is -- CHANTICLEER! And Chanticleer delivers the musical goods in deeply gratifying ways! Still, I'm sure I'm not alone among music-lovers who hunger for interesting repertoire, so carefully chosen and prepared, that feeds our imaginations and sense of discovery, with fantastic programs like these.

What Chanticleer brings us is unique. Their visits to Spivey Hall are memorable because their musicianship is great, they sing with plenty of heart, WHAT they sing is so interesting, and the feeling they create in the hall with the audience is so palpable, so strong, and so rewarding. It's a feeling that reminds me of a patron's comment after he heard the Academy of Ancient Music perform the six Brandenburg Concertos with such success a few weeks ago: "THIS is what Spivey Hall is all about." Amen!

I'm personally grateful that Chanticleer is including in this visit to Atlanta a session with three high school men's choruses. On Friday, they're going to Starr's Mill High School in Fayetteville to lead a master class. The ensembles performing are Sandy Creek High School (Millie Turek, director); McIntosh High School (Amy Foster, director); Starr’s Mill High School (John Odom, director).

Chanticleer makes a practice of reaching out to young musicians to enhance their understanding of the art of a cappella singing. This is how important musical traditions are carried forward. Much great music-making unquestionably starts with the notes and the score, but goes far beyond it in ways that aren't always written down -- instead, the insights of great artists are passed from one generation to the next through performance, by teaching one-on-one, and by conveying ideas that can best be understood through sound, as musicians give them to each other. We're hoping that the young singers will be as enthralled by Chanticleer as audiences are, and that their time together will reap valuable musical benefits for everyone.

Friday's concert is getting close to selling out (UPDATE on Friday afternoon: only a very few tickets remain!). Saturday's is not far behind, but there are a still few more seats available for Saturday.

Don't hesitate! Chanticleer can recharge your musical batteries and give you a sense of well-being like few ensembles can. Come listen, and be inspired.

(A note to my friend and blog reader, Greg: I hope this font size makes for easier reading. Sometime this summer, I'm going to find a way to change the blue background of my blog, to enhance the general legibility of my posts.)


Blogger Lila said...

Chanticleer was wonderful on Saturday night!

7:58 PM  
Blogger Spivey Hall said...

Thanks, Lila! Saturday's program was gorgeous, and many patrons commented on how great it was to discover "new" works like the Vittoria and Desprez, which to my ears were mesmerizingly beautiful, and seemed to suspend time. We had a special encore, too, in memory of Dotty Wilkes: Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeanie," with Chanticleer music director Matt Oltman singing the tenor solo. He told the story of how he met Dotty, when he'd flown into Atlanta for a performance with an eye infection, had to wear sunglasses on stage, and joked that he hoped an eye doctor was in the house. And there was! Dotty went backstage and introduced him to her opthomalogist husband, Wilkes, and got Matt treated that very night. A long friendship ensued. Matt's comments were very touching, and the tribute was heartfelt. Wilkes brought a fine oil painting of Dotty, too, which we displayed in the upper lobby.

Friday's program was also marvelous. I was particularly taken by Barber's Reincarnations, which were richly sung, as were David Conte's The Homecoming and Eric Whitacre's "Sleep, My Child" from Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings...first-rate works by American composers. And the Stephen Foster set to close was delectable, especially "Nelly Bly." There was lots of energy in the hall, and good spirit flowing generously from audience to stage and back -- in the best moments, we all had our "communion" with Chanticleer.

At the Friday master class at Starr's Mill High School, when Chanticleer worked with the three high-school men's ensembles, we were all reminded of some of the fundamental truths of great singing: each note has a pitch, each word has a sound, and singing combines them. Each note and word must be polished, shaped, and refined, so that the combined sound conveys MEANING. Chanticleer's singers are acutely aware of these myriad choices, and they reach incredible heights of expression by making this process of synthesis seem effortless, when in fact it is the result of conscientious musicianship and lots of disciplined work. Though we don't always remember why, our ears know the difference when what we hear comes together so impressively.

BRAVI TUTTI to the men of Chanticleer! We look forward to your return soon!

8:50 AM  

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