Friday, May 18, 2007

Music: And On Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass by Chanticleer

The San Francisco-based all-male a cappella vocal orchestra Chanticleer is the only full-time choral group in the United States. Having established itself as America's premier vocal ensemble, specializing but not limiting themselves to the Early, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, Chanticleer appropriately derives its exceptional name from the clear singing rooster of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

A yard she had, enclosed all roundabout
With pales, and there was a dry ditch without,
And in the yard a cock called Chauntecleer.
In all the land, for crowing, he'd no peer.
His voice was merrier than the organ gay
On Mass days, which in church begins to play;
More regular was his crowing in his lodge
Than is a clock or abbey horologe.
By instinct he'd marked each ascension down

Chanticleer was founded in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto, who sang with the group until 1989 and served as artistic director until his death in 1997. Countertenor/composer Joseph Jennings took over as artistic director after Botto's death and has remained in that capacity since that time. The group is composed of 12 voices: 1 Bass, 2 Baritones, 3 Tenors, 3 Altos, and 3 sopranos. They have earned a reputation for crystalline a cappella interpretations of everything from Early Chant to Renaissance Liturgical Music to jazz and Broadway standards. Specialists in Renaissance Polyphony, Chanticleer have recorded several notable works of early music, which include the music of Byrd, Brumel, and Palestrina. The group has also concentrated on the music of the Mexican Baroque, as well as American spirituals and world folk music. The group has gained wide popularity for their several superb Christmas collections.

Chanticleer’s newest recording, And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass is in many ways its most ambitious and satisfying project. The mass was commissioned by Chanticleer with the five liturgical movements composed by contemporary composers with disparate cultural and musical backgrounds. The mass celebrates the life of Chanticleer’s founder, Louis Botto, on the tenth anniversary of his death as well as the lives of notable San Franciscans and was premiered in April 2007.

For the uninitiated, And On Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass is based upon the musical liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass. There are five major sections of the service:

The Kyrie is the contemporary “Lord have Mercy,” offered during the Mass is led by the priest or celebrant, and repeated by the congregation. In modern times the Kyrie is recited in the vernacular having been derived from the original Greek. This Kyrie is composed by American Douglas Cuomo (b. 1958). It is highly charged polyphony using many of the older vocal techniques while incorporating pronunciations of the Greek as if through South African diction. It is a charged and lengthy piece that begins and ends quietly, but exists anxious in its interior.

The Gloria is a mass prayer termed The Great Doxology, Gloria in Excelsis Deo (literally, Glory in the heights to God). It is a prayer recited or sung after the Kyrie and before in the Scripture readings. Turkish-American Kamran Ince (b.1960) is responsible for the setting of the Gloria, subtitled “Everywhere” and sung in English and Latin, addressing the dream of ecumenicism. The piece retains continuity with a constant polyphonic drone as the underpinning of the sung words. Its character is of a slow shimmering of tones, like sunlight on warm water, agitated by external winds.

The Credo - is the recitation of the Nicene Creed, occurring after the Homily. The creed is the central choral piece of the mass. This setting, “Credo/Ani Ma'Amin” is composed by the Israeli composer Shulamit Ran. The text is sung in English and Yiddish and embraces the concept of faith in God in great adversity and uses a story of the Holocaust as a vehicle. The singing is beautiful and complex if disconcerting. The Credo is the most powerful piece of the collection.

The Sanctus - is the “Holy, Holy, Holy” of the modern mass, recited at the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer during the consecration. The text is based on Isaiah 6:3, describing the prophet's vision of God’s throne surrounded by the seraphim. Set here by the Eastern Orthodox-influenced Ivan Moody (b.1964), the Sanctus not so different compositionally from the exegesis of Sir John Tavener (b. 1944) and Arvo Part (b. 1935), both modern Eastern Orthodox choral specialists.

The Agnus Dei, literally “Lamb of God.” recited during the breaking of the Holy Eucharistic just before communion. It is lushly set here by Michael McGlynn (b.1964), the Irish choral composer who founded Irish choir Anúna. McGlynn infuses the Agnus Dei with that special spirituality championed by his homeland’s patron saint, Patrick.

Director Joseph Jennings included between these contemporary compositions medieval liturgical pieces in contrast to the modern treatments. The disc opens with a sixth century plainsong Da Pacem, Domine, Literally from the original Latin: “Give peace, O Lord, in our time / Because there is no one else / Who will fight for us
If not You, our God.” Jennings follows this with Andrea Gabrieli’s (1510-1586) Deus, Deus Meus, Respice in Me, literally from the Latin: “My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me?” from the Friday Prime Canonical Office. The plainsong, of which the Gregorian Chant is member, is a monophonic (using no additional harmony) choral piece, whereas Gabrieli’s Deus, Deus… is an example of polyphonic (with harmony) writing.

Jennings breaks the Glora and the Credo with two medieval pieces, O Vos Omnes (V. from Responsoria -Sabbato Sancto) (“All ye who pass by the way”) by Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613). This is a responsorial that follows the reading of scripture and is derived from Lamentations 1:12. It is the fifth of the nine such responsories sung during the Matins on Holy Saturday. The second ancient piece is Gesualdo’s Aestimatus Sum from Psalm 87, sung as the responsorial number eight of the Matins on Holy Saturday. These pieces illustrate a more sophisticated polyphony with more complex melody lines that the Gabrieli piece. The Credo and the Sanctus are separated by Gabrieli’s O Salutaris Hostia, derived from a section of one of the Eucharistic hymns written by St Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Aquinas wrote it for the Canonical Office of Lauds.

The Director breaks Ivan Moody’s Sanctus from the Agnus Dei with another Gesualdo composition, Peccantem Me Quotidie “While I am sinning every day, and yet do not repent.” It is a motet sung as part of Matins. The beautiful piece evokes the fragility of humanity and the sorrow for a sinful nature. Chanticleer has no peer in the performance of this music (save for perhaps the Paul Hillier ensemble, which tends to add a decidedly modern edge to ancient performances). Jennings ends the disc with a second setting of Da Pacem, Domine, one he himself arranged. This piece may be the most perfect minute and a half Chanticleer has ever committed to digital.

Da pacem, Domine, in diebus nostris
Quia non est alius
Qui pugnet pro nobis
Nisi tu Deus noster.

The voices rise like the frosted breath of prayer in some long ago monastery, “Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told / His rosary, and while his frosted breath, / Like pious incense from a censer old, / Seem’d taking flight for heaven.”


Matthew D. Oltman, Alan Reinhardt, Gabe Lewis-O'Connor, Eric S. Brenner, Eric Alatorre, Todd Wedge, Brian Hinman, Michael McNeil, Adam Ward, Jace Wittig, Dylan Hostetter, William Sauerland, Joseph Jennings- Musical Director


Da Pacem, Domine – plainsong; Deus, Deus Meus, Respice in Me - Andrea Gabrieli (1510-1586); Kyrie - Douglas J. Cuomo (b.1958); (Gloria) Everywhere - Kamran Ince (b.1960); O Vos Omnes (V. from Responsoria -Sabbato Sancto) - Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613); Aestimatus Sum - Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613); Credo/Ani Ma'Amin - Shulamit Ran (b.1949); O Salutaris Hostia - Andrea Gabrieli; Ravenna Sanctus - Ivan Moody (b.1964); Peccantem Me Quotidie - Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613); Agnus Dei - Michael McGlynn (b.1964); Da Pacem, Domine - plainsong (arr. Joseph H. Jennings).

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007