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Photograph by Lisa Kohler
Time Travelers: The all-male a cappella group Chanticleer sings the music of Old California on Tuesday at Holy Cross Church.

Men With A Mission

Chanticleer revives the music of Old California with a series of concerts at Holy Cross and other missions

By Andrew Gilbert

From cool jazz and the Beach Boys to NWA and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, California has inspired a myriad of sonic responses. For Chanticleer, the multiple Grammy-winning all-male a cappella ensemble based in San Francisco, the Golden State's sound is best represented by an era before California was golden, or even a state. In a perfect confluence of venue, artists and repertoire, the 12-member choir performs at Mission Santa Cruz/Holy Cross Church on Tuesday as part of a series of nine on-site concerts exploring sacred music composed during the Mission era. Some of the pieces, like Juan Bautista Sancho's glorious Latin Mass in G, Misa en sol, are relatively well known, but Chanticleer is also unveiling recently discovered works by esteemed Mexican Baroque master Manuel de Sumaya, while other Spanish-language vocal compositions are by anonymous Spanish/Mexican composers of the late 18th century.  

"It's exciting to find music of this caliber," says Chanticleer music director Joseph Jennings. "Some of it is quite gracious, graceful and lovely. Some of it is very much in the European tradition and some is very much indigenous to this continent, and could only be found here. It might have roots in Spain or Italy, but it's our music."

"El Camino Real: Chanticleer Travels the Mission Road" is the concluding program of the ensemble's 30th season and caps an astonishingly creative three-decade run that started in 1978 at San Francisco's Mission Dolores. While Chanticleer has gained international acclaim for commissioning new works by contemporary composers--the group was named Musical America's 2008 Ensemble of the Year, the first time a vocal ensemble has ever received this award--the organization got its start as an early music ensemble dedicated to overlooked medieval and Renaissance music. The long neglected material from the Mission era, which ran from 1769 through about 1836, fits right into Chanticleer's mission.

"Part of it is that it's new and unknown and hasn't been done," Jennings says. "It's always exciting to find new works, especially new works that are worthy that haven't been performed. We're very much involved in commissioning new works, and it's great to be able to debut and revise works written a couple hundred years ago. It may be the case that a couple hundred years from now people will unearth music we commissioned."

There is a time capsule element to Chanticleer's Mission project, but the music more than stands on its own. Since the original instrumental parts have been lost, the group has worked closely with Craig Russell, professor of music at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and a leading authority on Mexican Baroque music, which encompasses the Mission era. He painstakingly restored the musical settings for the Mission program, which features Chanticleer's soaring vocals accompanied by two violins, two guitars, cello and harp. In many cases, the Mission concerts present music heard as it was originally conceived for the first time in almost two centuries.

Russell collaborated with Chanticleer on the acclaimed 1994 album Mexican Baroque, and the Mission program reflects his years of research on his forthcoming book From Serra to Sancho: Music and Pageantry in the California Missions (Oxford University Press). To assemble the material he had to put himself back in the Mission period to re-create how the different pieces were used. "In the process of gluing them back together, I got more and more excited," he says. "This is really wonderful music."

The centerpiece of Chanticleer's Mission program is Sancho's Mass in G. A product of Spain's leading conservatory, he arrived in Mexico in 1803 and soon took up residence in at the now-obscure Mission San Antonio de Padua, located on the Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation (off Highway 101's Jolon Road exit). While many scholars believe he composed his masterpiece in Spain, Russell has found evidence that the Mass was created at least partially in California. Certain sections alternate between cutting edge harmonies that bring to mind Haydn and declarative sections predictive of Bob Dylan.

"It's one of the jewels of California, and the Western tradition," Russell says. "It's unbelievably beautiful, and incredibly advanced harmonically and texturally."

CHANTICLEER performs Tuesday, May 27, at 8pm at Holy Cross Church, 126 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25-$44; call 415.392.4400 or

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