Given the bounty of masterworks devoted to Christmas and the popularity of the holiday, it’s hardly surprising that many vocal ensembles devote a significant chunk of their seasons to music of the yuletide. Chanticleer, an acclaimed 12-member male a cappella ensemble based in San Francisco, is no exception.
“One of the things that has kept us artistically active and (we hope) interesting for the last four decades is the variety of programming we do,” said music director William Fred Scott via e-mail. “So it is really exciting for us to know that once a year there will be a guaranteed chance to explore the riches available to us in the Christmas repertoire.”
This year, Chanticleer will present 22 holiday concerts: half in the San Francisco Bay area and the other half on the road. Two of those tour performances will be Dec. 5-6 under the auspices of Symphony Center Presents, when the Grammy Award-winning ensemble returns to Chicago for the 17th consecutive year. Indeed, the group’s annual appearance has become one of city’s most beloved ways to celebrate the season.
“We look forward to the annual Chicago visit with much happiness,” Scott said. “We feel that we have made great friends in Chicago over the years. When we talk to them in the lobbies or near the CD table, we find out very quickly how loyal they are. They shower us with a great deal of affection. I hope that they feel it is reciprocated.”
The concerts will again take place in the Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut, which was dedicated in 1914 and is the oldest building on Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River. The prominent landmark, which combines English and French Gothic styles, was designed by Ralph Adams Cram, who was also the architect for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
“Whenever I’m sitting in Fourth Presbyterian, and wherever I’m sitting, I love the ambience of that church,” Scott said. “To begin with it is an enormously impressive building architecturally. Frankly, as we walk in the doors for the first time each year, the view we have of that magnificent pipe organ puts us in just the right mood — although we don’t use it in our concerts! The beauty of the sanctuary, especially at holiday time, and the terrific acoustics complete the picture. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorite places to perform, and I know our men share that feeling.”
Although “A Chanticleer Christmas” follows a similar format from year to year, with candlelit Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, followed by Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria (1964), international offerings and familiar American carols, the program is never the same. “The only piece that is constant is the Biebl, and I’m sure I’d be run out of town if I tried to replace it with any other version,” Scott said.
Highlights of this year’s program will include Noël, noël, by 16th-century French composer Eustache du Caurroy, Renaissance composer Pierre de Manchicourt’s motet Reges terrae and Francis Poulenc’s Videntes Stellam from his Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël (Four Motets for Christmastime), 1951-52. As a salute to Joe Jennings, Chanticleer’s previous music director, the program will feature his arrangements of three carols: Star of Wonder, We Three Kings and No Small Wonder. Since it is Chanticleer member Eric Alatorre’s last year with the group, Scott has inserted several of the singer’s favorites, including Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, in which Alatorre serves as the bass in the solo quartet. The line-up will conclude with Rosephanye Powell’s medley of three well-known African-American Christmas songs: Rise Up Shepherd An’ Follow, Mary Had a Baby and Come An’ See.
In putting together this installment of Chanticleer’s annual holiday program, Scott sought a variety of musical styles, shapes and colors. “Add to that a certain sense of adventure and difficulty for the singers, which is balanced by an equally cozy feeling of familiarity, joy, happiness and love,” he said. “We like the sacred mission of our Christmas programs, and are happy that our audiences feel the same way.”