And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass

Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, April 26.

When I bought tickets to this concert some nine months ago, I had no idea what the program would be, and I didn’t care. I would listen to Chanticleer sing anything—nursery rhymes, 1980s power ballads, “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas—anything at all. The choir’s flawless tone, impeccable precision, and ravishing musicality make virtually anything worth listening to, and the ensemble has the dramatically varied repertory—everything from Renaissance music to gospel music to challenging new music—to prove it.

As it turns out, Chanticleer debuted a new work: a mass with each of the five movements created by a different contemporary composer from a different cultural background. American composer Douglas Cuomo wrote the Kyrie; Turkish-American Kamran Ince wrote the Gloria using a Sufi text; Israeli-born Shulamit Ran wrote the Credo using a Hebrew text; Ivan Moody wrote the Sanctus in the Greek-Orthodox tradition; and the Irish Michael McGlynn wrote the Agnus Dei infused with folk elements.

Each movement was sung a capella, but beyond that they differed considerably, yet paradoxically they still hung together rather well as a unified mass. I’m sure it helped that the choir sung short sixteenth-century works by Gabrieli and Gesualdo between the mass’ main movements—lending it some continuity—but beyond that, all the movements possessed a sense of sincerity, of spiritual longing. Each provenance was different, but they seemed to be trying to reach the same place.

The Kyrie featured tight harmonies that showed off the choir’s precision. The Gloria was (appropriately) more effusive, making wonderful use of the English translation of a text by Rumi. Take, for example, these lines:

Moslems and Christians and Jews
raising their hands in the sky
their chanting voice in unison
begin to arrive.

The text-painting opportunities are obvious—maybe even trite—but Ince’s interpretation was so lovely that it never felt that way as the men’s voices arced higher and higher before converging in resounding climax.

Ran’s Credo felt a bit too specific for my tastes, making use of Holocaust-related texts that, while affecting, were so particular in their details that they made the movement feel narrower in scope rather than universal. That said, I did appreciate the pain and ambivalence of her Credo. Such sentiments probably wouldn’t have been appropriate in the Gloria or Sanctus as those movements are pure praise, but in the Credo, the moment of the mass in which the congregants baldly state their beliefs, exploring how those beliefs can be challenged and clouded by doubt made sense.

The Sanctus reveled in rich harmonies and made beautiful use of the choir’s lower voices. The final movement, however, was my favorite Thursday night. That might be, I admit, because McGlynn’s Agnus Dei was probably the most accessible, with its use of simple, folk-like melodies and lush sonorities, but on first listening, its beauty entranced me most.

The Agnus Dei also featured a solo tenor line, in which the soloist truly opened up, bold and bright and full-throated. Chanticleer’s choral blend is truly extraordinary, so it was startling—and effective—to hear one of the singers using such a strong solo voice, cutting across the wash of sound from his fellows.

That said, the blend and the resulting luxurious sound are what made the performance as a whole so captivating. The concert took place in the Metropolitan Museum’s wing housing the Temple of Dendur. We sat in the enormous, high-ceiling hall between a reflecting pool and the sandstone of the imported monument with a sloping wall of glass looking out into the night. The choir’s sound filled the room, reverberating and spinning, the overtones sparkling like crystals. I’ve listening to Chanticleer’s CDs many, many times (Colors of Love, a collection of twentieth-century choral music, is my favorite), but nothing compares to hearing the choir sing live, the sound washing over you, embracing you, wrapping you in its warmth. It was more beautiful than I could have imagined.