At the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, May 3.
The Met’s Engelhard Court, part of the newly expanded American Wing, is a roughly cube-shaped room, several stories high, all marble and glass and stone. It is an incredibly live space, so reverberant that sound takes five or six seconds to decay into silence. In other words, it’s actually not ideal for a concert. The space swallows up finer points of articulation and enunciation, turning everything into a beautifully resonant but undeniably muddy wash of sound.
The singers in Chanticleer compensated as best they could like the pros they are. They must have been crisping every consonant to make the lyrics remotely legible and hitting some of the faster passages staccato to keep the line from running into one long gliss. That worked on some pieces more than others, but it was all still beautiful. And to be honest, an overly reverberant space can be a fun novelty. Hearing the music crescendo to fortissimo, cut abruptly, and then linger there, like perfume, for an impossibly long time can be downright magical, which is something I associate with Chanticleer anyway.
To honor the Met’s reopening of the American Wing, the program featured music by American composers—broadly interpreted. The concert opened, for example, with two liturgical settings by Antonio de Salazar, one of New Spain’s most acclaimed composers, whose work would have been performed throughout the Catholic missions in what is now California. I suppose programming Salazar, who died in 1715, was partly a way to include some Baroque music despite the fact that the United States didn’t exist during the Baroque period, but Salazar’s music is far too lovely to attribute its inclusion solely to the America technicality. With striking use of a double choir, elegant chromaticism, delicate polyphonic texture, and, of course, familiar Latin texts, Salazar’s music made the hall’s resonant space sound remarkably cathedral-like.
From there, Chanticleer moved to a couple of shape-note hymns, which I always enjoy. Shape notes were invented in the nineteenth century with the idea that assigning different shapes to different notes on the scale would make it easier for untrained singers to learn to read music, so technically “shape note” refers only to a notional style. But the hymns those shape notes were used to write, predominantly in the South and Midwest, have a distinctive style as well, ignoring many conventional harmonic progressions and frequently employing stark open intervals. The resulting music has a fervent, raw quality, like an exposed nerve. Chanticleer doesn’t plunge all the way into traditional shape-note-sing vocal style (which, frankly, can get a bit shouty), but the singers do adopt a brassier-than-usual tone that makes for a good compromise, giving the hymns an uninhibited, earthy quality even amid the grandeur of the Engelhard Court.
But not even Chanticleer could make the program’s jazz standard arrangements sound quite at home in Engelhard. I admit that Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” Lorenz and Hart’s “My Romance,” and Arlen’s “Blues in the Night” aren’t really to my taste anyway (it is possible to find standards that aren’t quite so … cheesy), but even given my bias, the music didn’t quite come together in that space. A clubby sense of intimacy might have given the vampy arrangements more charm, but in the comparatively remote space of the American WIng, they often felt sort of silly—and not in a good way.
The program’s spirituals (“Wade in the Water” and “Deep River”) worked a bit better—I suppose the gravity of the genre grounded the songs even in the echoing room—but my favorites were definitely the twentieth- and twentieth-first-century art songs. I think I might prefer Barber’s choral arrangement of his solo song “Heaven-Haven (A Nun Takes the Veil)” to the original. Rendering the first-person text in a shared voice gives the brief, mystical song, with its shifting tonalities, an aura of universality, longing not for a convent life but for some better world. That ideas is already in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, but giving the words to a choir rather than a soloist makes that theme more explicit and more moving. Eric Whitacre’s “This Marriage,” another short but lovely work, sets a gorgeous text by Rumi, and as with “Heaven-Haven,” the blurriness created by the room mostly worked for it rather than against it. Both pieces move slowly, luxuriating in every harmony, and extra resonance adds to the lushness of it all.
The weightier works were two song sets, Steven Sametz’s Not an End of Loving in its entirety and selections from Stephen Paulus’s The Lotus Lovers, both commissioned specifically for Chanticleer. Sametz uses three poignant texts: a gently romantic poem by Antjie Krog, a sensuously homoerotic poem by Walt Whitman, and a gloriously transcendent poem of love and mortality by Alcuin of York. Together the diverse texts create a portrait of love across a lifetime and beyond, and Sametz sets them with intricate craftsmanship, piecing together melodic fragments and rhythmic motives in a stunning mosaic.
Paulus uses vivid translations of Chinese poems attributed to a woman named Tzu Yeh. The dynamic are sometimes a bit showy, but the more subtle passages are exquisitely tender. Paulus pays great attention to the descriptive qualities of the poetry—bending willows, beaming moonlight, racing heart—and evokes those in the arcing melodies and vital rhythms of the music. Like Not an End of Loving, Lotus Lovers sounds like music that rewards further listening. I adored them on first listen Thursday night, but I suspect there’s more to discover with a more considered ear and, perhaps, a few less echoes. And of course, those promises of underlying depths are part of why I loved them most in the first place.