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March 13, 2013

The Luxurious Perfection of Chanticleer: 35 Years of ‘Clear Singing’

Chanticleer, aka Botto’s Miracle: ‘a polished performing machine’

Chanticleer, aka Botto’s Miracle: ‘a polished performing machine’

It has been a long, strange trip of three-and-a-half decades’ duration for the multi Grammy winning male vocal ensemble Chanticleer, from traveling in rickety buses and eating cheap food on the road to performing in the world’s grandest concert halls and checking into 4-star hotels boasting equally grand menus. The ensemble has gone from scraping funds together to support its endeavors to financing an extensive educational program for young aspiring musicians. And it has earned this bouquet from the Los Angeles Times: “Chanticleer fascinates and enthralls for much the same reason a fine chocolate or a Rolls Royce does–through luxurious perfection.”

Over the years, Chanticleer founder Louis Botto was often asked if, at that first convening of singers around a dining room table in San Francisco he had any idea it would become what it is today. He would usually answer “yes,” with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye. As a graduate student in musicology, Botto found it odd that much of the repertoire he was studying–vocal music of the medieval and Renaissance periods–was not being performed. He decided to form a group to sing this neglected repertoire, using only male voices, as was the tradition in most churches during the Renaissance. Louis turned to members of choirs in which he sang, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, asking if they might be interested in this endeavor. Nine members were selected, including Botto (who sang tenor until 1989 and served as Artistic Director until his death in 1997), and rehearsals began for their debut performance.

Chanticleer, Ave Maria (Franz Biebl), from Fireside Christmas with Chanticleer DVD

One of the founding members, baritone Charlie Erikson, was in the midst of reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. To name the group, he suggested Chanticleer, the name of the “clear singing” rooster in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” (Chaucer had actually borrowed the name from the ancient French tale, “Renard the Fox”; it is a combination of the French words chanter [“to sing”] and clair [“clear”].) Everyone approved this choice, and Chanticleer debuted on June 27, 1978 before a capacity audience at San Francisco’s historic Old Mission Dolores. The program featured works by composers that would become staples of the ensemble’s repertoire over the years: Byrd, Isaac, Ockeghem, Morales, Morley, Dufay, and Josquin. Buoyed by their success, they agreed to continue rehearsing with the goal of performing a new concert approximately every four months.

Louis was always concerned that there were not enough career positions available to choral singers and he decided early on that Chanticleer should provide full-time, salaried employment for its members. This was not an easily attainable goal and in fact was not realized until 1991. The group’s early years were marked by long, arduous tours traveling by van, often for eight to ten weeks and dozens of concerts in a row in as many cities. The group earned little money in those days. Louis, a gourmet chef, often bragged that he could make dinner for all of the members of Chanticleer for less than $50, and he frequently did so, cooking in their tiny motel “kitchenettes.” Conditions gradually improved, but those early days in the van are fondly remembered.

Chanticleer, ‘Shenandoah,’ from the collection Chanticleer: A Portrait

Chanticleer’s first tours covered every state in the union. International recognition came in l984 when the ensemble performed a Mass at the International Josquin Symposium held in Belgium. Chanticleer was invited to replace a last minute cancellation by another group, which required the Mass to be rehearsed on the plane! Today, Chanticleer tours biannually to Europe’s most prestigious concert halls, including the Musikverein in Vienna, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Prague’s Rudolfinum, Budapest’s Bela Bartok Hall, among others. Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have offered concerts regularly, and in 2009 Chanticleer made its debut in the People’s Republic of China.

In those early years, Chanticleer was the beneficiary of good luck and good friends. It could not have succeeded in those early years through hard work alone. In 1980, the group participated in the Festival of Masses, a large choral festival held in San Francisco with the legendary Robert Shaw serving as Festival Conductor. Chanticleer performed a solo concert of three complete masses: one in plainchant and polyphonic settings by Dufay and Byrd. Mr. Shaw attended the performance and told the group “it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.” Louis Botto, ever the entrepreneur, wrote down the Maestro’s statement and asked him to sign it the next day. He did so, with one addition: stating that it was one of the most beautiful musical experiences of his life.

Chanticleer live in concert: For Thy Soul’s Salvation: Music for England’s Monarchs, recorded June 5, 2010 at Mission Dolores in San Francisco

More than 100 men have sung in the ensemble, each leaving an individual legacy. In what was to be a defining moment in l983, Joseph Jennings joined the group as a countertenor. His talents quickly led him to be named Music Director, a post he held until 2008. His legacy is far-reaching, and includes a wealth of gospel and jazz arrangements, as well as a long list of works commissioned by Chanticleer under his direction.

It was obvious that recording would increase the ensemble’s exposure, but difficult to find a label willing to venture into the varied repertoire that the group performed. In 1987, with its tenth anniversary approaching, Chanticleer decided to create an independent label, Chanticleer Records, to release its first CD. The risk paid off: the ensemble issued ten discs over a period of only six years. These recordings were successful enough that in 1994, Teldec signed Chanticleer to an exclusive recording contract, which lasted until 2008. Teldec recognized the appeal of Chanticleer’s diverse repertoire, making the CDs available in more than 60 countries, and vastly increasing Chanticleer’s name recognition internationally. Colors of Love, Chanticleer’s 1999 release devoted to contemporary choral works, won the Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance (With or Without a Conductor.) Lamentations and Praises won two Grammy awards in 2001. The group has sold well over a million records.

Chanticleer, ‘The First Noel,’ live on The Today Show, December 5, 2005

Chanticleer, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,’ live on The Today Show, December 5, 2005

Chanticleer, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter,’ from the album

From time to time Chanticleer collaborates with other artists. In Sing We Christmas close collaboration with musicologist Craig Russell, Chanticleer has performed and recorded three programs of unknown works by 18th-century Mexican composers Manuel de Zumaya and Ignacio de Jerusalem with a period-instrument orchestra (Mexican Baroque, Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Mission Road). Chanticleer presented a fully staged opera by Benjamin Britten, Curlew River, to critical acclaim, a musical play about Hildegard Von Bingen, and dramatic work by Sir John Tavener entitled Lamentations and Praises. Chanticleer has performed with Frederica Von Stade, Al Jarreau, Garrison Keilor, the Shanghai Quartet, as well as the New York, San Francisco, and St. Paul orchestras.

Chanticleer has commissioned over 70 composers who have written over 90 pieces premiered by the group. This long-standing commitment to commissioning and performing new works was honored in 2008 by the inaugural Dale Warland/Chorus America Commissioning Award and the ASCAP/Chorus America Award for Adventurous Programming for the 2006/07 season, in which ten new works were premiered. Among the 70 composers commissioned in Chanticleer’s history are Mark Adamo, Mason Bates, Régis Campo, Chen Yi, David Conte, Shawn Crouch, Douglas J. Cuomo, Brent Michael Davids, Anthony Davis, Guido López-Gavilán, William Hawley, Jake Heggie, Jackson Hill, Kamran Ince, Jeeyoung Kim, Tania León, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Michael McGlynn, Peter Michaelides, John Musto, Tarik O’Regan, Roxanna Panufnik, Shulamit Ran, Bernard Rands, Steven Sametz, Carlos Sanchez-Guttierez, Jan Sandstrom, Paul Schoenfield, Steven Stucky, John Tavener, Augusta Read Thomas, and Janike Vandervelde.

Chanticleer, ‘Loch Lomond,’ from the album Wondrous Love

With the help of individual contributions and foundation and corporate support, the ensemble involves over 5000 young people annually in its extensive education program. The 2010/11 season saw the creation of the Louis A. Botto (LAB) Choir–an after-school honors program for high school and college students which was added to the ongoing program of in-school clinics and workshops, Chanticleer Youth Choral Festivals in the Bay Area and around the country, including the National Youth Choral Festival every four years, master classes for university students nationwide, and the Chanticleer in Sonoma summer workshop for adult choral singers. The Singing Life–a documentary about Chanticleer’s work with young people–was released in 2008. In 2010 Chanticleer’s education program was recognized by the Chorus America Education Outreach Award.

Chanticleer has had the opportunity to sing in some of the most beautiful concert halls and churches in the world. But the group has also sung in a barn in Canada, a roofless church in the former East Germany, a gymnasium in Sweden, and in Central Park with the New York Philharmonic. No matter where the group travels, Chanticleer has become, says the Wall Street Journal, a “polished performing machine that … could fairly be called Botto’s miracle.” Louis should be proud.


A Listener’s Guide to Chanticleer on CD: 10 Must-Have Discs


THE SIREN’S CALL (2013): The seductive and irresistible songs of the sirens–sometimes fateful, sometimes fatal–fill Chanticleer’s 35th anniversary opener, a live concert recording captured before an audience in September 2012 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Renowned Chinese composer Chen Yi sounds the call in her own inimitable language, and celebrated Irish composer Michael McGlynn channels the undeniable connection of Ireland and the sea that surrounds it. Other works by Bates, Gabrieli, Palestrina, Gesualdo, and more. The recording features Vince Peterson’s arrangement of “Temptation,” written by Tom Waits.


HOW SWEET THE SOUND: SPIRITUALS & TRADITIONAL GOSPEL MUSIC (2004): Chanticleer’s repertoire ranges through many centuries. On this recording, the group again proves its infinite versatility in a program of gospel music and spirituals. The singing is so authentic that one feels like a participant in a gospel meeting, swaying to the rhythm with the crowd. Contributing greatly to the impact is Chanticleer’s guest, Yvette A. Funder. Possessor of a voice remarkable for its range, power, and flexibility, she brings to the music the empathy and authority of one born and raised in the tradition, whether leading call-and-response, engaging in improvisations that soar high above the chorus, crooning softly in meditation, or shouting in ecstasy. (She is also an active Bishop ministering to the poor and afflicted, and the founder of various social service agencies in California.) Several songs include soloists drawn from the chorus as well, most notably a tenor, a countertenor and a bass who provides a rhythmic ostinato. The program, designed for maximum variety of tempo, mood, character and texture, includes many favorite songs and spirituals, such as “Amazing Grace,” “There is a Balm in Gilead,” “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” The arrangements by Joseph Jennings, Chanticleer’s Music Director for 20 years, are admirably simple and very good; only a few are marred by awkward modulations or overly sophisticated, Hollywood-inspired effects. Most of them are for a cappella voices. Jennings also contributes a new original composition: “Be still and Know that I’m God.” Repeating these words like an invocation, it builds a cumulative drama with increasingly wild, elaborate improvisations in call-and-response between soloist and chorus; supported by a prominent piano part that includes solos, chordal and running passages, it ends with a rousing climax. –Edith Eisler,



LUDUS PASCHALIS: RESURRECTION PLAY OF TOURS (2011): The Easter Sepulcher Drama originated in the 10th century, springing out of the practice of troping–the interpolation of dramatic non-biblical texts and freely composed music into the seasonal portions of the Mass. As troping became more and more complex, eventually involving a variety of “characters” complete with appropriate gestures and costumes, the miniature music-dramas moved outside of church walls and were performed in church courtyards and town squares. Eventually, local guilds began sponsoring performances and supplied the required actors, musicians, and elaborate stage settings.

The incomplete Easter drama Ludus Paschalis comes from the Diocese of Tours, France.  In the realization presented on this recording, early music historian Frederick Renz masterfully incorporates fragments from the Maastricht Easter Play, the Fleury Playbook, and a ‘sister’ Ludus from the Convent of Origny-Sainte-Benoite to complete the Tours play.  He also interpolates three conducti: Dulcis Jesu memoria, Victimae paschali laudes, and Pange melos lacrimosum, utilizing them as introductory or procession music. Members of Chanticleer take up the roles of the three Marys, Jesus, Peter, Thomas, and several other characters related to the Easter story. The entire music-drama is accompanied by the other-worldly sound of The Medieval Harp Choir Angelorum, directed by Cheryl Ann Fulton.


TAVENER: LAMENTATIONS & PRAISES (2002): Co-commissioned by Chanticleer, the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Grammy winning Lamentations and Praises is a major 70-minute work, a liturgical drama written expressly for the 12 voices of Chanticleer and an unusual combination of instruments and electronics: flute, bass trombone, string quintet, tape, and a percussion section comprised of a Byzantine monastery bell, Tibetan temple bowl, tam-tam, simantron (a large wooden sounding-board struck with a hammer), tubular bells and timpani. The text, drawn from the service of Holy Friday, expresses the joy-sorrow of the Orthodox Christian conception of death and resurrection. Several sections culminate in climactic buildups of volume and intensity. Some of the music is very beautiful, but its repetitiousness and basically unchanging character make a sense of monotony unavoidable. Perhaps only listeners who share Tavener’s own deep spirituality can fully enter into his musical world. The performance by Chanticleer is wonderful. The voices float with a transparent, pure, otherworldly sound–it seems unbelievable that the altos and sopranos, who go up to high F’s and G’s, are really male singers–and the instruments match them perfectly in tone and style.


COLORS OF LOVE (1999): This compilation of modern-day madrigals won the Grammy for Best Small Ensemble Performance of 1999. The selections range over a variety of styles and aesthetics, from the haunting, hypnotic sounds of Steven Stucky’s “Cradle Songs” to the archaic, ethereal beauty and Eastern inflections of John Tavener’s “Village Wedding.” There are the soft (and somewhat affected) asperities of Bernard Rands’ Canti d’Amor as well as the gentle, almost English pastoralism of Zhou Long’s “Words of the Sun” (beautiful!) and the colorfully exotic Orientalism of Chen Yi’s Tang Poems. Other examples of the wide range here are the self-conscious busywork of Augusta Read Thomas’s Love Songs to the darkly lush, 12-part weave of Steven Sametz’s “In Time Of,” with its radiant climax and pulsating chordal sonorites like the tolling of bells. All of this Chanticleer sings with striking freshness and commitment, virtuosic to a fare-thee-well, always sensitive to the emotional cues of the texts. The recording, made at Skywalker Ranch in January of 1999, is vivid and warm, and so is much of the music. Truly a winning disc. —Ted Libbey,


OUR AMERICAN JOURNEY (2002): This is Chanticleer’s 25th recording and also marks its 25th anniversary season. The title refers to the group’s wide-ranging repertoire; this disc includes Mexican baroque, traditional American songs in various styles and music commissioned by Chanticleer itself. A program that tries to please everybody is bound to disappoint somebody; however, no one could be disappointed by the singing. The sound of these 12 unaccompanied male voices has an unearthly, celestial beauty and purity; their blend is perfect. Though the singers rarely use vibrato, their intonation is impeccable both together and in solos. Their expressive range and stylistic versatility are incredible: they can project tenderness, pleading, and bitter protest and are equally at home in plainchant, Latin hymns, blues, spirituals, shouts and crooning. Among the highlights are the three opening hymns, settings of two poems of Torquato Tasso by William Hawley, commissioned by Chanticleer, which combine 16th- and 20th-century styles, and the two final folksongs (“Wayfarin’ Stranger” and “I Am a Pilgrim”), the last with a stride-style piano accompaniment, making a rousing, exuberant ending. The booklet, in three languages, is well laid-out and informative.– Edith Eisler,


WHERE THE SUN WILL NEVER GO DOWN (1992): Chanticleer’s pure sound, perfect intonation, and marvelous blend are well-known, and the group is one of America’s treasures. On this CD, they break from the tradition of how they normally learned and rehearsed the material, and the effect is stunning. The leader, Joseph Jennings, decided that the best way to capture the essence of the music he grew up with in the black churches of the American south was to teach these arrangements the way he would have learned them as a boy–by rote. The musicians here were stripped of their usual foundation (sheet music), and instead were taught the parts one at a time by Joseph singing them. To a “refined” classical musician, this is utter heresy. However, the group pulls off an absolutely captivating set of performances, and it seems that the way they were forced to learn the music had a distinct influence on the success.

It’s almost impossible to describe the energy and joy present in these performances. From the rhythmic drive of “All Night, All Day” to the tenderness of “Steal Away” to the deeply contemplative “Deep River” to the raw piercing insistence of “Am I a Soldier of the Cross,” you will find new contrasts of emotion and energy in every track. And the final track, “Twelve Gates to the City.” just makes you want to bounce right out of your seat. (This last track is the only one with accompaniment–a rollicking piano improvisation played by Jennings, including giving out the beat by stomping his foot.) —David Beamer,


SING WE CHRISTMAS (1995): Recorded in a beautiful church in the old walled city of Kempen during a November 1994 tour of Germany, Sing We Christmas represents many western European traditions and a great variety of time periods, languages and styles. A wonderful collection offering traditional and contemporary settings of holiday music, including anthems, canons, carols, dances, hymns and motets.With selections spanning the last five centuries of Latin, German, English, Spanish, and French festive fare, this recording exemplifies the sacrifice of the ego to the higher form of choral sound. Jacob Handl’s “Mirabile Mysterium” takes you on a trip into the chromatic wonderlands, where you temporarily lose tonal balance. Victoria’s eerie and dissonant “O Magnum Mysterium” treats us to rich voices swelling out of one organic whole. The phenomenal blend and perfect intonation elevate this recording above others in its category. Includes In dulci jubilee (Praetorious), Hodie Christus natus set (Jacob Handl), Here is the little door (Herbert Howells), O magnum mysterium (Tomas Luis de Victoria), In the bleak mid-winter (Holst), Silent Night and others.


A CHANTICLEER CHRISTMAS (2010): The music ranges from the plainsong and antiphonal music–as in ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’ and ‘O Admirabile Comericum’–to traditional English carols and French carols. The sing each song in the language of origin, making this a global celebration. Rarely have we heard the purity of intonation and sound as these men offer in “Caroling, Caroling,” “Rocking Carol,” “Angels we have heard on high” and “Un Flambeau Jeanette, Isabella.” The collection closes with a memorable Ave Maria. Start listening to it and the push and shove of the holidays will simply disappear. Recorded live in Stanford’s magnificent Memorial Church.






SOUND IN SPIRIT (2005): All traditions of spiritual enlightenment have used sound and the voice as a gateway to transcendence. Sound in Spirit, the first Chanticleer CD to be conceived for recording and remixing in a studio environment, is a ground-breaking mosaic of sacred chant, drawing from traditions as diverse as Native American and Japanese, Byzantine and Tibetan, Gallo-Portuguese and native Australian. It is the first to add outdoor ambient sounds, and the first Chanticleer recording to incorporate “overtone singing,” both intentional and accidental, as the result of the singers’ immaculate intonation. Selections include work by an anonymous medieval master, contemporary women composers, Chanticleer favorites such as Tomas Luis de Victoria and Jackson Hill, and even improvisation amid the sounds of nature.  For the adventurous listener, for the curious, for explorers of the outer boundaries of the human voice, Sound in Spirit is a powerful inquiry into the profound connection between sound and healing




Chanticleer, ‘(Everywhere I Go) Somebody Talkin’ ‘Bout Jesus

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