Duane Smith Auditorium, Los Alamos, Jan. 24
Since its founding in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1978, Chanticleer has earned and sustained a reputation as the nation’s premiere all-male vocal ensemble. More than a hundred singers have cycled in and out of the group over the years. The longest serving at this point is the impeccably mustachioed basso Eric Alatorre, who is now in his 26th season of laying the foundation with buzzing, sepulchral resonance. Several other members hover around the 10-year mark, including Cortez Mitchell, whose astonishing high-alto voice pings out with absolute security even in its improbably lofty upper reaches.
And yet, as much as such performers help define the group’s distinctive timbre, Chanticleer is really about ensemble singing, even if individuals occasionally emerge for solo turns. Although there exists a rich trove of music crafted for standard men’s choir of tenors and basses, for the most part it is not Chanticleer’s repertoire. With its 12 singers equally divided among the sopranos, altos, tenors, and baritone/ bass registers, the group is a fully mixed chorus.
Chanticleer bills itself as “an orchestra of voices.” During its recital last Sunday, courtesy of the Los Alamos Concert Association, one grew to feel that such a label implies that the group is something it is not, at least in its current formation under the direction of William Fred Scott. It is a finely honed ensemble, but it seemed reluctant to depart from its basic sonic template. Over the course of its rather long concert — nearly two and a half hours, adding in a late start and a very prolonged intermission — a listener could grow desensitized to the rigidly defined sound. Although nearly every number displayed technical precision, not all of the interpretations were genuinely expressive. That was certainly the case with almost mechanical renderings of spirituals and pop songs that might have provided lift at the program’s end. One might have expected more emotional impact from a pair of Monteverdi madrigals — gleeful risibility, perhaps, in “S’andasse Amor a caccia,” alluring charm in “Ecco mormorar l’onde.” Among other early-music selections, exposed writing in Lasso’s “Conditor alme siderum” showcased the group’s spot- on intonation, tricky metric transitions in Busnois’ “Gaude, caelestis domina” were elegantly finessed (and tenor Michael Bresnahan sang the work’s sustained cantus firmus with unflagging control), and the weaving lines of Robert Parsons’ “Ave Maria” were shaped with a sense of rhythmic destination. Another high point, from a later era, was Elgar’s “There Is Sweet Music,” infused with a f lowing beat and carefully voiced to balance the opposition of high vs. low voices.
An enthusiastic proponent of new music, Chanticleer included three substantial scores it had commissioned. The ostensible topic of the afternoon was music about the moon, and Nico Muhly’s Three Moon Songs, set to poetry by Albert Giraud (of Pierrot Lunaire fame), filled the bill with some clever word painting if not much to hold onto musically. Four movements from The Lotus Lovers, by the late Stephen Paulus, displayed that composer’s genial professionalism. The most interesting of the new works was “Observer in the Magellanic Cloud,” by Mason Bates (who is writing an opera about tech pioneer Steve Jobs for Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 season). This oddball piece sets two disparate groups antiphonally and sometimes mingles them. A lost satellite in outer space focuses its telescope on a spot on Earth where Maori tribesmen chant a prayer to the stars in which they cannot imagine the satellite is f loating. The unknowing intersection of ethnic-sounding song and the satellite’s electronic pulsations combine with subtle touches of percussion to suggest an intriguing, enjoyable, and certainly unaccustomed perspective on the universe. — James M. Keller