Saturday, February 2, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
January 30

A class act sets the tone for a new performance space.

It’s another one of those moments,” CMA Director David Franklin told the capacity crowd that turned out to hear Chanticleer, the stylish male chorus from San Francisco, on Wednesday night.

Milestones have become almost routine at the museum these days, as longstanding construction walls come down, new galleries open up, and a soaring atrium linking them all together has added a breathtaking public space. The Chanticleer concert marked the first live music performance in the atrium, framed appropriately by the renovated Renaissance and Islamic galleries behind the stage, and the high-tech Gallery One in front of it.

Chanticleer’s program offered a similarly sweeping historical perspective, starting with 16th-century Italian madrigals by composers like Andrea Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, and ending with a sampling of American blues (Tom Waits’ “Temptation”) and gospel music. Organized around a theme of siren calls and seduction, the program ranged through Central European, British and American classical works, traditional songs from Ireland and Japan, a generous sampling of contemporary music, and several pieces composed specifically for the ensemble.

Chanticleer is a dynamic choir, which is to say that it doesn’t set up in standard formation (highest voices to lowest) and project directly out to the audience. Instead, the members constantly rearrange themselves in configurations best-suited to the vocal needs of the piece – single or double lines, a tight half-circle, a loose group behind one or two feature vocalists. And because the singers cue off each other, they spend as much time interacting among themselves as they do looking at the audience. In that sense, they’re more like watching a jazz band or chamber music group at work than a conventional chorus.

At least in this appearance, the high voices – three sopranos, three altos – were strikingly stronger than the bass and baritones, which almost disappeared at times. Which is not to disparage the quality of the individual voices; almost every singer had a solo moment, and in those they were uniformly strong. But the clarity of the countertenors on selections like Carlo Gesualdo’s “Luci serene e chiare” and Mahler’s “Erinnerung” made it easy to forget the low voices onstage.

Even in a wide-open space like the atrium, the rich harmonies and polyphonic complexities of the Italian pieces were dazzling, conjuring up visions of Renaissance theaters and churches like San Marco (St. Mark’s) Basilica in Venice, where Gabrieli and Monteverdi held sway. Following those, selections from Grieg, Elgar and Barber seemed almost monochromatic – rendered with careful attention to detail, but sleepy by comparison.

Musically, the most interesting pieces of the evening were the contemporary ones. The first half closed with excerpts from American composer Mason Bates’ song cycle Sirens, in which the chorus conjured up the sounds and rhythms of lapping waves, and Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s captivating Canticum calamitatis maritimae, inspired by the tragedy of the cruise ship Estonia, which sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994, taking 852 passengers and crew with it. The work opens with rhythmic breathing and whispers, as if ghostly voices are recounting the story, and blossoms into a modern requiem with chanting and funeral dirges. The singers took full advantage of its shifting colors and moods to showcase their range and versatility.

Works written and arranged by Irish composer Michael McGlynn were less interesting, and Chen Yi’s original “I Hear the Siren’s Call” and Osamu Shimizu’s arrangement of the traditional Japanese fishermen’s song “Sohran Bushi” were mostly charming in invoking their ethnic heritage. But overall the program was striking in its intelligence and variety, and the singing impressive in its professional caliber.

The sound was good close to the stage, where the audience could see the singers work off each other and hear the careful subtleties and intonations in their voices. But that was lost as one moved further away, even with discreet microphones feeding hanging columns of speakers. By the time listeners reached the second-floor seats overlooking the atrium, the sound was like a wall, solid but without much detail or definition.

Figuring out the acoustics of the atrium, and what kind of music works best there, will be an ongoing process. Otherwise the concert was a satisfying christening, with an enthusiastic audience and performers who clearly felt the same way generating the kind of excitement that has become de rigueur at Cleveland’s cultural cornerstone these days.

For more on Chanticleer:

For more on CMA:

CMA photo by Lucian Bartosik

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