Chanticleer at San Francisco Conservatory of Music


Earthly and unearthly—a vocal tradition that explores space

The twelve gifted men of Chanticleer brought a new choral program to the SF Conservatory of Music this week. “Out of This World!” was a forum that used the harmonies of the human voice to point to the larger harmonies of space.

Some physicists speak of the eleven dimensions of string theory—ten curling up inside themselves, and one to gather them to order. Others seek solace filling the perceptible three dimensions with all the partial dimensions where fractals rule, and where a cube’s sides and corners skitter off into pieces of sides, infinite series of possible corners.

But following in the footsteps of Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, musicians understand that the universe is simply vibration. And while the medium may be uncertain, the waves that disturb its surface were certainly palpable September 19.

Shaping that space for us, the 12 singers of Chanticleer warmed up with a lovely sixteenth century plainchant by Palestrina, then moved into three different treatments of Ave regina caelorum. The first,an anonymous plainchant, was sung in unison, a sound so clean it penetrated like panpipes.

Francisco Guerrero’s following version held gentle lines that brought a softness to the air. Here was an opportunity to see the singers of Chanticleer hard at work: synchronized entrances, delicate unison vowels sustained without the aid of vibrato, and perfect cut-offs. Watching them as they faced each other and tuned up longer notes until the pitches were dead-on was a real treat. But beyond that awesome technique one could also hear their joy in the music, a joy that illuminated the pieces they chose.

“Stelle,” from Mason Bates’ Sirens, was commissioned by Chanticleer, and they essayed its complex antiphonies with gentle care. Notes were rounded, pebbles made liquid in a common stream.

They sang Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia followed by two gorgeous German works and I marveled at the differences of language. Britten used difficult harmonies and difficult text, rapid English phrases with awkward diphthongs and abusive consonants. And yet countertenor Cortez Mitchell sang an exquisite line that soared over the others with his signature warmth. And it recalled his show-stopping “Summertime” solo last year. A tenor sang “Like a rose,” as others hummed, and they separated to very high and very low to powerful effect, Britten’s musical genius overcoming the shortcomings of his form and native tongue.

Robert Schumann’s An die Sterne unfolded with a long drawn “shhh.” And suddenly I felt that German is the language these men were meant to sing. Here was a language where one could sing creamy consonants against dark and dreamy vowels. (Speech is, however, a different kettle of fish.)

That thought was confirmed with Gustav Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt, a choral arrangement from his Rückert-Lieder. There was lovely alto writing, and Mitchell sang slow arpeggios as the others supplied complex chords, with a subtle shift to Major resolving the last chord.

That powerful work was but one of three standouts from these gifted artists. Mason Bates wrote Observer in the Magellanic Cloud in response to a Maori chant to those distant dwarf galaxies. Displaying the ancient text against a modern language of machine beeps and rolled r’s, he achieves a rich earthiness amid an eerie unearthliness, strange dialogue of past and future.

Chanticleer closed their “vee” formation and began to walk in a circle as they shifted from complex rhythmic exchanges to a unison passage of rich harmonies. Their accomplished execution, from sound to choreography, made this piece legend. Truly.

From New Zealand they shipped to Australia for Sarah Hopkin’s remarkable Past Life Melodies. Few choruses could attempt this work. Not only does she duplicate the power and circular breathing of didgeridoo in voice, but she requires that the singers be fluent in overtones, as with Tibetan chant or Tuvan throat singing. And they were! They wove a rich tapestry of sound that lapped through the theater without pause, entering and leaving seamlessly for a powerful and primitive chord that rang for long minutes.

As we were pulled deep into the song, it became clear that music, like gravity, bends the space around it.

Information on upcoming concerts and MP3’s are available at

—Adam Broner

Photo courtesy of Chanticleer: from left rear, Michael McNeil, Eric Alatorre, Adam Ward, Matthew Curtis, Alan Reinhardt, Ben Jones, Cortez Mitchell and Casey Breves; front row Michael Axtell, Gregory Peebles, Artistic Director Matthew Oltman, Brian Hinman and Jace Witting in front.

This article originally published in the Piedmont Post.