Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday, April 10.
Months ago, when I learned that the name of Chanticleer’s 2009–2010 spring program would be In Time Of…, I immediately realized that the choir must be planning to perform “in time of,” a work by Steven Sametz recorded in 1999 on Colors of Love. I sent Sean a giddy, overexcited e-mail to that effect (direct quote: “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”) because “in time of” is my favorite track on that album and I’ve wanted to hear it live for years. I was right about the program, of course, and the performance was gorgeous, of course, but with some distance (sorry about the protracted writing schedule—we’ve had company and I’m dreadfully behind), I now wonder whether this all might be a sign that I’ve gotten a bit too fangirl-ish about Chanticleer. Working myself into a happy frenzy months before the actually concert is probably excessive, you know?
But the choir is just so good, and the spring concerts are held at the Met’s Temple of Dendur room, with its vast glass windows and reflecting pond and reverberant sound, and it’s like a sort of secular worship service, and I look forward to it every year. Maybe I do get a bit giddy, but I don’t overestimate the performance’s beauty. It’s lovely. So there.
The “in time of” text comes from an e. e. cummings poem that, while enigmatic, ultimately feels like a more optimistic take on Shakespeare’s “ages of man” soliloquy from As You Like It. Sametz sets it with a complex series of layered voices, small groups shifting and overlapping, repeating patterns, adding overtones and pedal tones. The music is gentle and serene, never showy, never rising much above a mezzo forte, but subtly textured and enveloping. Saturday’s live performance was marred slightly by the decision to have the singers shift formations mid-song as their vocal lines shifted from one grouping to another (distracting and unnecessary), but other than that, it was sumptuous—definitely one of the jewels of the program.
Other highlights included the rousing fifteenth-century “Agincourt Carol” in a set with Janequin’s goofy “La Guerre,” a sixteenth-century song that takes text-painting to absurd extremes, with boisterous “Fan fre re le le lans” and “Ta ri ra ri ras” giving voice to the cannons and swords and trumpets of battle. The twentieth-century works on the program didn’t fall short either. György Ligeti’s short, gemlike settings of Hungarian poetry are stunningly vivid and evocative, and Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur’s “Épithalame,” from Le Cantique des cantiques, might have surpassed even “in time of” in my affections. I’d never heard of Daniel-Lesur, but “Épithalame” is incredible, threading the traditional Veni sponsa Christi plainchant into thick, intricate harmonies, building and building, and finally culminating with jubilant alleluias.
But all those works were performed in the first half. After intermission, the singing was no less beautiful but the selections felt less inspired, a bit warmed over even to my besotted ears. The pieces by Mason Bates (apparently a hometown favorite from Chanticleer’s San Francisco) were OK but nothing special—certainly not good enough to justify a song cycle titled Sirens, a name that seems a shade presumptuous to me. (I take my Greek mythology seriously.) I appreciated the chance to hear again Michael McGlynn’s folk-like Agnus Dei, which the choir premiered in 2007, but “Shenandoah” and “Summertime” were repeats from just last year, which annoyed me slightly. Chanticleer has a voluminous library of repertory to draw from; the choir has no reason to stick so closely with the obvious crowd-pleasers.
That said, both songs are lyrical stunners, and giving solos to Cortez Mitchell is never a bad idea, and the choir is just so damn good that I can’t stay mildly annoyed, much less mad. Such perfect blend, such impeccable technique, such expressivity—and they even performed “in time of”! But seriously, vary the final set next year, OK, guys? No, I’m not likely to tone down my biannual Chanticleer lovefest, but you don’t want me to feel cheap, do you?