“A Chanticleer Christmas” is a bona-fide holiday tradition, as firmly established as Grandma’s turkey stuffing. But with the arrival of Chanticleer’s new musical director, there might be some anxiety. What changes might he be cooking up?
Fear not. “This meal has its set courses,” William Fred Scott assures, “and this chef is not going to mess with them.”
The 12-voice, all-male, bass-to-soprano chorus, now in its 38th year, will again perform at the landmark Fourth Presbyterian Church in a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert booking Dec. 1-2.
As in the past 14 Christmases, the sanctuary will be filled with Gregorian chant sung in candlelight to introduce the mysteries of the holiday story. Franz Biebl’s setting of Ave Maria will venerate Mary, full of grace. Chanticleer’s own medley of spirituals will serve as the rousing send-off.
Still, with a menu ranging from plainsong to pop, there is room on the buffet for at least a dash or two of different flavors.
For adventurous tastes, the San Francisco-based Chanticleer will offer music from 16th century Spain (by Cristobal Morales). Twentieth-century carols — from France (jazz pianist Bruno Gousset) and indigenous folk music from Venezuela (Alberto Grau) — infuse “old-fashioned structure with new-fashioned tonality,” Scott says.
There’s savory to balance the sweet. Scott selected favorite arrangements including the “Wassail Song” (Ralph Vaughan Williams) and “I Saw Three Ships” (David Willcocks), along with “This have I done for my true love” (Gustav Holst). The Holst setting of a familiar Christmas poem covers the whole story, from birth to crucifixion.
“That hits us hard amid the ‘Silver Bells’ mentality of the holiday season,” Scott admits. “But we do have to think ‘Where does this story go? And how do we fit in it? How can we get to that point of joy where we can go tell it on the mountain?’
“The combination of all of this is fresh and, I hope, interesting,” Scott says. “Even if the program includes music that we’ve been singing for 38 years or music we have not yet sung, the listener should still feel you are in the same musical space, feeling the same emotions.”
While Scott assumed the role of music director just this past August, he is not new to Chanticleer, founded in 1978 in San Francisco. “I’ve been working with the guys off and on for about four years, putting some programs together as guest music director, acting music director, interim music director … all sorts of titles. Now I just have the one title, and I hope it’s one I’ll have for a long time.”
Scott came to Chanticleer via the Opera Company of Boston, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Atlanta Opera. Along the way, he met two larger-than-life forces of American music. Each left indelible marks on his professional life, but not how he might have expected.
“My first job out of college was with [conductor] Sarah Caldwell in Boston,” he recalls. “She had a fantastic sense of style and scale but no real sense of planning. Very improvisational. So I figured that’s how people worked. Then I went to Atlanta to be associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw, who was exactly the opposite. Meticulous in planning and disciplined in execution.”
With Chanticleer, Scott adds both influences, to taste, in his musical preparations. First the mechanics of rhythm and vowels are mastered, then the spiritual and emotional aspects can be applied — “as Mr. Shaw used to say: ‘the flesh becomes word’ and the piece comes to life.”
Now Christmas is coming. For Scott, Chanticleer and Chicago, everything is in place. The preparations are complete.
Joe Pixler is a Chicago-based writer.
TOP: Members of Chanticleer perform in the group’s annual Symphony Center Presents concert Dec. 1 at the Fourth Presbyterian Church. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015