Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday, December 5.
I like evergreens and Tiny Tim and jolly, red-suited men as much as the next person, but nothing puts me in the joy-to-the-world, God-bless-us-every-one spirit like Christmas music—not the junky Santa Claus stuff but the real carols, simple and candid and tender. That’s why I didn’t mind that the tickets to Chanticleer’s Christmas program were something of a splurge. I love the choir, of course, but I was also excited about the chance to feel Christmassy, for lack of a better word.
The annual concert takes place in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in front of an enormous Christmas tree decorated with terracotta angels looking down on an expansive Baroque crèche. The room is gorgeous on its own … and then the choir enters on a Gregorian chant, and the room fades to the background. Perfectly tuned, perfectly blended, and perfectly shaped, the voices reverberate beautifully in the hall.
The singers’ versatility amazes me. Each shifts with seeming effortlessness from the pure, straight tones of Renaissance polyphony to the brassier, more forward sounds of familiar spirituals, and from the selfless harmony of choral singing to the individual prominence of solo singing. That versatility allows them to create a program to match, opening with “classical” works (ranging from the thirteenth century to the twentieth) and closing with arrangements of hymns and spirituals.
I enjoyed the uninhibited, energetic glee of the arrangements (though some were a tad cheesy for my tastes, and my literalist streak makes “Oh Jerusalem in the Morning” rather frustrating), but my heart was in the program’s first half. The exquisite fugal passages of Michael Praetorius’ “In dulci jubilo” and the lush tonal clusters of Jan Sandström’s “Det är en ros unsprungen” create a texture, a tapestry of sound, that the merely tuneful songs can’t match. That tapestry envelopes you, smoothing away every care and filling the empty corners of your soul.
I’d just as soon listen to an entire program of that polyphonic loveliness, but perhaps it’s better, more Christmassy even, that Chanticleer had a gift for everyone: “O Holy Night” for the traditionalists, “Oh, What a Pretty Little Baby” for those who grew up with spirituals, and “O Spross aus Isais Wurzel” (by Arvo Pärt!) for earnest choral music dorks like me. Still, I was happy that the choir’s encore was not one of the more boisterous numbers but rather Franz Biebl’s hushed “Ave Maria.” The resonant chords, the luminous melody, moving from the trio to the ensemble, arcing ever upward, angelic and prayerful and transcendent—the music was a glorious Merry Christmas, invoking not overpriced gifts or culture wars or empty calories but a radiantly devotional sense of peace.