Concert Review: Chanticleer wows Rockford audience

When I was being trained for my first writing job in New York, many years ago, my fellow novices and I were told that a constant goal was to convey our feelings in our written reports, and if our reaction was to cry out, “Wow!”, then be sure to put that on paper, for it carries its own impact. OK. WOW! There. I did it.

Sunday, Oct. 9, Itzhak Perlman so deftly demonstrated his own artistry on the violin, and Monday evening three Rockford vocal groups (chamber ensembles from Rock Valley College and Rockford College, along with Joel Ross’ Kantorei) participated in a choral workshop led by Matthew D. Oltman, assistant music director (and tenor) from San Francisco’s Chanticleer. Then, Tuesday night, Oct. 11, Rockford’s true fans packed Court Street United Methodist Church wall to wall as the 12 young men, in white tie and tails, showed us all how Chanticleer earned the title “An Orchestra of Voices.” In the course of the evening, so many of their musical sounds explored unfamiliar potentials of the human voice. Clicks, rumbles, bird calls, complex rhythms and, of course, flawless harmonies, along with mastery of the challenging dissonances that are the experimental area of recent times.

The printed program suggests a wide repertoire that is ready for performance, but then the group sorts out their own selections of the music that will make up the evening’s delights. The opening section, titled “EarthSongs,” focused on images of “our world and nature, flowers, bird songs, even something as prosaic as seaweed.” Warming up with four 16th-century settings of Latin texts (including Psalms 24 and 100), the group continued with two works that incorporated vocal renditions of a variety of birds chirping.

They then led the audience further afield with two selections by Chen Yi (born 1953), a highly honored composer trained both in Beijing, China, and at New York’s Columbia University, and now teaching in, of all places, Kansas City. The texts, about rain and wild grass, dated from the 9th century; to my ears, it seemed that the music drew from Oriental modalities, by which I mean that it did not seem to sit in the conventional Western scale with its standard harmonies, but rather carried our ears far into another musical idiom entirely, with an exotic palette of note, intervals and sounds.

“EarthSongs” then continued with a taste of the early 20th century, with Saint-Saëns, Hindemith and Mahler.

Throughout the entire evening, part of Chanticleer’s distinct character demands that we mention the range of voices, all male, but with some carrying the classification of “soprano”—and here it is again, Wow! So often, those sopranos soar convincingly up near the high C, that is so often an upper limit of more conventional sopranos.

After intermission, there was a wide variety of languages and rhythms, Spanish, Irish, and eventually, of course, American pop classic and Southern spiritual.

There were so many mysteries in the evening—I had to wonder how they kept together in the Mahler, which did not have the glue of a noticeable rhythmic pulse. Did they keep in touch by raised eyebrows, unified breaths, or, most likely, of course, their consummate musicianship? And when they all manned the counters after the concert to let us part with our money to take home a few more CDs, my choice was the “Past Life Melodies” by Sarah Hopkins (born 1958), which drew from her eight years in Australia. The music combined sounds of the Aborigines, rare use of harmonic overtones, and echoes of the wild Australian outback, while the basses rendered a continuous seamless drone copying the characteristic sound of the Aboriginal’s didgeridoo.

Chanticleer’s schedule this season includes 80 concerts in the U.S., a fall tour of Japan, and a European jaunt covering seven countries early in 2006, so we all were lucky that Rockford’s historic Performing Arts Center got their reservation early on to present this special evening with Chanticleer, sponsored by Mendelssohn’s current President Judith Graff and her husband John Graff, in memory of Elizabeth and Ralph Anderson.

The evening had further support from FM Classical Station WNIU and television channel WREX 13. As always, all of Rockford is richer for the way formal support and enthusiastic audience response combine to set the rafters ringing with music for all.

From the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2005, issue

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