If this were a normal year, Chanticleer would present its annual Chicago holiday concerts at the Fourth Presbyterian Church under the auspices of Symphony Center Presents. But as everyone knows, 2020 has been anything but normal.
Because of the pandemic, the San Francisco-based a cappella male choir had to cancel its usual national tour. But all is not lost. Chicago audiences will be able to enjoy the voices of the acclaimed ensemble — through a virtual concert online.
Symphony Center Presents On Demand will stream a filmed version of the group’s 2020 yuletide program, “A Chanticleer Christmas: From Darkness to Light,” via the CSOtv video portal. The concert will be available Dec. 6-27.
The virtual concert is one of the first major projects overseen by Tim Keeler, Chanticleer’s newly appointed sixth music director. Keeler, who sang with Chanticleer in 2017-18, most recently served as conductor of the men’s choir at the University of Maryland, where he was working on his doctorate and is finishing his dissertation.
“Singing is brilliant, and I love doing it, but there is that extra bit of perspective you get as a conductor,” Keeler said. “You get to think about a lot of other things, and I find that fascinating and exciting, so that’s always been the trajectory for me.”
After Chanticleer music director William Fred Scott announced he was retiring, Keeler got a phone call inquiring about his interest in the job. He jumped at the chance. “For any choral musician in America, you say, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’ because Chanticleer’s the top of the game,” he said.
Because of the many challenges prompted by the pandemic, Keeler has not been able to devote much time to larger strategic changes. But he is committed to the idea of bolstering Chanticleer’s digital presence, a necessity due to the loss of its in-person performances. While live concerts will always remain central to the group’s mission, online activities provide an added dimension and larger reach.
“The direction that arts organizations have had to take during the pandemic is the direction that the 21st century is going,” Keeler said. “That was already going to be a focus of mine moving forward with Chanticleer, and now we’re sort of thrust into it from day one.”
In a regular season from just after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, Chanticleer would typically perform about 25 holiday concerts, about half at home and half on the road, including two in Chicago. “It was a jam-packed schedule, but, of course, none of that is happening,” Keeler said.
Instead, ensemble leaders decided to create a filmed version of its Christmas concert, one that does not look the same as its onstage version. “While I think there is a market and a desire for just a simple capture of a concert, there is an opportunity to make it more than that,” Keeler said. “We wanted to lean into that and make it something a little more visually exciting, a little more interesting, to sort of make up for the fact that you are not there in person.”
Chanticleer’s yule concert was filmed just after Halloween in a warehouse outside San Francisco, where there was ample space for social distancing and extensive ventilation due to the structure’s many windows. A big question was how to make the space look and feel like Christmas.
The solution that ensemble leaders settled on was to tape the performance at night, with overhead lanterns illuminating the singers. “I think of it as Christmas Eve,” Keeler said. “There’s no Christmas tree, and there are no Christmas lights, but I think it captures the mystery and magic of Christmas in a pretty unique way. Unlike a typical concert where the 12 singers are spread in an arc, they are grouped in a circle for this taped performance.”
The concert opens with a candlelit procession as the singers perform a version of a 13th-century Armenian hymn, Khorhurd khorin (Mystery Profound), by Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), a priest, composer and choirmaster. It is also known as The Hymn of Vesting, because it was traditionally sung in the Armenian Church as the priest put on his ceremonial robes in preparation for the liturgy.
The program continues with Praeter rerum seriem by famed French-born, Renaissance-era composer Josquin des Prez (1450-1521), and then alternates between older works and newer selections, such as George Walker’s A Babe Is Born and Irving Berlin’s Count Your Blessings. As the program’s title suggests, it follows a theme of light emerging in the darkness, with the final work, a spiritual, Jerusalem in the Morning, filmed at daybreak.
“It not only works well as a trajectory for the program, and not to be too poetic about it, but it also definitely works really well as a metaphor for what I hope we can experience as together as a society going through this pandemic,” Keeler said. “I’m definitely feeling a little dark and have for a while, but it’s important to remember that there is light at the end.”