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Chaucer's brash rooster in the Canterbury Tales was called Chanticleer, a mongrel word meaning "sing clearly."

Twelve years ago a new male choral group in San Francisco set themselves a challenge by adopting that name. They've been singing clearly ever since, as demonstrated Sunday evening.

Chanticleer is one of an elite group of vocal ensembles with whom one simply cannot detect a minuscule error in intonation, a slightly errant attack or even a marginally misjudged balance during an entire evening.

Their program was largely Christmas oriented, opening with two Renaissance selections, Palestrina's "Ave Regina caelorum" and parts of Byrd's "In Assumptione Beate Mariae Virginis." This established the type of pure, vibratoless tone which would dominate.

There are four countertenors, four tenors, one baritone, one bass-baritone and two basses, but considering the tessitura of Chanticleer's upper voices at least two of them might as well be called male sopranos.

This should not be taken to imply that there is anything ethereally detached or bloodless about Chanticleer's singing.

Where purity was wanted, it was there. But at the other end of the vocal spectrum, there was an amazing amount of bite and fervor in a Christmas Spiritual Medley by artistic director Joseph Jennings.

Poulenc's "Four Little Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi" were turned into delectable miniatures, fully voiced in their contemporary close harmonies. Sung with extreme reverence, the dynamics seldom exceeded mezzo-piano.

The major offering of the evening was 12 excerpts from Banchieri's 1608 madrigal comedy "Festino Nella Sera Del Giovedi Grasso Avanti Cena," a rowdy romp describing a pre-Lenten party. The vocal projection ranged from merely jovial and bouncy to raucous to pinched nasal mimicking and even animal noises and drunken revelry.

Ricocheting tones and greatly varied textures carried the racy lines of Allen Shearer's "Nude Descending a Staircase," while his "The Illusion of Eternity" spoke in gently overlapping lines and clean, piquant dissonances.

Turning the corner into purely Christmas music was Franz Biebl's enchanting 1964 "Ave Maria," with its melding of plainchant and contemporary harmony, sung with an absolutely mesmerizing richness in its quiet sonorities.

Other seasonal selections included Ives' intimate and gentle "A Christmas Carol," Rutter's arrangement of "Il est ne le divin enfant" with its rhythmically pinging finger cymbal accompaniment and a surprisingly complex and beautifully controlled "I Wonder As I Wander."

My only artistic reservation of the evening was Jennings arrangement of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," whose style seemed to change with each verse, beginning in plainchant and ending in something close to barbershop.


12-man a cappella choir on QRS Great Performers' Series.

Sunday evening in Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College

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