As in holidays past, the sanctuary of the Fourth Presbyterian Church will be filled with Gregorian chant sung in candlelight while Franz Biebl’s setting of Ave Maria will venerate Mary, full of grace. A 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, scheduled for its annual holiday residency Dec. 4-5 via Symphony Center Presents, will offer music from 16th century Spain, 20th-century carols and indigenous folk music from around the world. It’s “old-fashioned structure infused with new-fashioned tonality,” said William Fred Scott, music director of the male a cappella vocal ensemble.
There’s savory to balance the sweet. For Chanticleer, a typical program might combine 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 said. “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.”
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 recalled. “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 has added both influences, to taste, in his musical preparations. First the mechanics of rhythm and text 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.
A version of this article previously appeared on Sounds and Stories.