From the Path of Beauty

Chanticleer and the Shanghai Quartet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, April 10.

The members of Chanticleer blend their voices more beautifully than any other choir I’ve ever heard, and in the powerfully reverberant hall housing the Temple of Dendur at the Met—where their most recent New York performance took place—the effect is extraordinary. The choir’s collective voice envelopes you. It’s above you, behind you, inside you,* and it’s glorious.

To be honest, I didn’t even much care what they were performing—I was just happy to hear them—but in fact, the big work of the concert was the premiere of Chen Yi’s From the Path of Beauty, a song cycle for choir and string quartet. It is the sort of composition that probably would take multiple listens to fully appreciate but that Chanticleer and the Shanghai Quartet performed well enough to make even the first listen dazzling.

Each movement took a type of Chinese art as its inspiration—poetry, calligraphy, dance, music—and the interpretations of the nonmusical arts were idiosyncratic, sometimes more interesting conceptually than aurally. The dense cluster chords of “The Ancient Totems” felt motionless and inert, and the odd melodic leaps of “The Clay Figurines” never made sense in my ear. I preferred the lush polyphony of “The Secluded Melody,” the way Chen Yi layered simple pentatonic fragments to create a shimmery tapestry of sound. The final movement, “The Village Band,” was vibrantly energetic with cheerful, driving rhythms.

I supposed it makes sense that the music-inspired music would be most immediately accessible. No doubt the more distant movements would begin to come together for me with subsequent hearings—Chen Yi is a talented composer whose work I admire—but I suspect “The Secluded Melody,” with its eerie, placid beauty, would always be my favorite.

After intermission, the choir and the string quartet performed separately. Songs by György Ligeti were enjoyable, but it was the choral transcription of a Maurice Ravel song—originally written for voice, string quartet, piano, and winds—that truly entranced me. The arrangement was miraculous, with strikingly varied textures and breathtaking attention to the overtones that floated over the chords. It beautifully showcased the choir’s precision and sensitivity.

The Shanghai Quartet performed Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, a perfect example of Ravel’s curious blend of late romantic harmony and neoclassic form. The first movement plods a bit, but the second, with its lively pizzicato theme, is a gem, and the playful shifting accents of the finale delight me each time I hear them.

That being said, I would have been sad to end the concert there, with Chanticleer—the real reason for my splurging on these tickets—off stage. But all the musicians came back for an encore: Chen Yi’s arrangements of several Chinese folk tunes. The songs were simple and understated—little like the challenging work that opened the program—and yet they closed the program beautifully, tying things off in a charming, joyful circle.

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*I know that sounds sexual, and I don’t care. Writing about how I experience music is difficult enough without being overscrupulous about double entendres.