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Chanticleer recital is out of this world

Chanticleer is named for the rooster in Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," and like a rooster, the group aims to wake you up. Monday in the Flickinger Performing Arts Center at Nichols School, the now-legendary male singing group gave a recital in the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series. I would say that by the end of it, everyone was awake.

The concert had an otherworldly theme. It was music about what lies out there, beyond the limits of earth.

It began with ancient Catholic music, a nice touch considering it is the start of Holy Week. Palestrina's "Assumpta est Maria" was luminous in the way Palestrina is. The lightsome melody lines seemed to float. A plainsong "Ave Regina" followed, and an "Ave regina caelorum" by Francisco Guerrero. Both were light and beautiful.

For an all-male singing group, Chanticleer has a surprisingly light, feminine sound. This seems to me the result of artful balance. The bass voices hold their thunder to let the treble voices lead and dominate. What balance this group achieves. If you fussed with highly sophisticated electronic controls, you would not be able to craft the sound better.

It is interesting how they reconfigure themselves between numbers, as if they were a set of chess pieces. That subtly changes how we hear the voices, and more importantly, I imagine, it helps keep the sound shifting, like so many colors.

Monteverdi's "Sfogava con le stele" played up the precision of Chanticleer's diction. We have all had the experience of catching a vocal performance on the radio, and being unable to determine if the singers are singing in Latin, German, French or what. Chanticleer leaves no doubt. The syllables all came through clearly. Listening was a pleasure.

Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecilia" was an offbeat treat, with Chanticleer deftly navigating its complex rhythms. It had a heartfelt sincerity, being sung by these men who devote their lives to song. Schumann's "An die Sterne" followed -- how often to you get a chance to hear this? -- and its rich melodies and harmonies evoked the spirit of German romanticism.

Next came a curiosity, Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhandend gekommen," arranged for chorus in 1983. It was sublime. The treble lines had the utmost delicacy, and the spirit of the song was so fragile as to conjure up the feeling of another world.

Then came the modern part of the program. "Island in Space" incorporated interesting effects to suggest a world of dark space. A chorus is a natural to suggest space. Gustav Holst, in "The Planets," had to call in a choir to suggest distant Neptune. "Island of Space" was glorious in its stark, finely sculpted ending. Chanticleer has mastered such subtlety.

"Observer in the Magellanic Cloud," by San Francisco composer Mason Bates, verged on pretentiousness, with its references to indigenous peoples and a distant galaxy. But it incorporated alluring sound effects. The singers walked in circles, and their footsteps were a rhythm. They turned on their heels to face each other, altering the sound. These are interesting techniques and ideas.

"Past Life Melodies," by Sarah Hopkins, was similarly ingenious on a purely intellectual level. Here was a continuous buzzing, droning sound, impeccably crafted. It got so it hurt my head, but I admired it.

The concert ended with a lighthearted tribute to collegiate a cappella. That was how I saw it, anyway. "Out of This World," by Harold Arlen, and "Change the World" saw the singers loosen up. It was as if they had downed shots backstage -- the mood was that different. (Hey, this is Buffalo. You never know.) Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" lent a note of poignancy.

A protracted standing ovation won us an encore, "Angels Watching Over Me." The old Scouting gospel standard never sounded so good.

Adding to the excitement, the Tick series announced its four concerts for next year: pianists Richard Goode and Joyce Yang (who recently filled in for Lang Lang with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra), as well as Les Violons du Roy, the Baroque group from Quebec, and the violinist winner of the next Tchaikovsky Competition, whoever he or she may be.

Meanwhile, this year's Tick series winds up Monday, with a recital by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han.




Monday evening as part of the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series in the Flickinger Performing Arts Center, Nichols School.

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