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[whitespace] Chanticleer Tower of Vocal Power: Chanticleer rises to the occasion for the holidays.

On a Chanticleer Day

Joseph Jennings talks about the famed Bay Area male ensemble's holiday vocal traditions


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JOSEPH JENNINGS, asked to describe the music of Chanticleer--the world-renowned all-male vocal ensemble for which he acts as music director--has no immediate response. There is only silence as Jennings contemplates the question.

"Well ... ," he offers, finally, before lapsing back into thoughtful reflection. "Hmmmmmm," he adds--then more silence.

Evidently, this is no simple question.

"It's difficult, you know, to distill Chanticleer down to a few spoken words," Jennings explains with a soft, easy chuckle. "But I suppose the best words to describe what an audience experiences at a Chanticleer concert would be these: pure unadulterated singing."

Pure unadulterated singing. That and two decades of experience making a cappella art of the highest order. A 12-man powerhouse of harmony and often-stunning vocal skill, performing a melodious stew of medieval and Renaissance sacred music, Gregorian chant, jazz, gospel and experimental works, the 21-year-old group has the distinction of being America's only full-time classical vocal ensemble.

Based in the Bay Area and founded in 1978 by the late Louis Botto, Chanticleer has performed literally thousands of concerts around the globe, annually making more than 100 appearances in America alone. The group has recorded 21 CDs, including its newest, The Colors of Love, which won a five-star rating from BBC Music Magazine, placing Chanticleer among a microscopic handful of musical groups expert enough to have received that honor.

And yet, in a world where more people can identify the songs of Garth Brooks and Britney Spears than would ever recognize the music of Franz Biebl or John Tavener, one has to wonder who cares about some classical vocal ensemble, no matter how good it might be?

"Well, if you love music, I suppose you would care," Jennings replies with a chuckle, his words honeyed by a lilting Georgia accent inherited from his home town of Augusta. "If you've ever heard the beauty of early music, I think you would care. And since what we do is all a cappella--there's no electronics involved in our live performances--if you're someone who likes that 'pure unadulterated singing,' I suppose you would care."

FORTUNATELY, there are plenty of folk who fit that demographic. Chanticleer is in constant demand, maintaining a rigorous touring and recording schedule. Its long-running annual holiday program, A Chanticleer Christmas--with only nine performances throughout Northern California, including a couple of one-night stands, at Mission Santa Clara and the Carmel Mission--routinely sells out.

"As for people caring about what we do," Jennings continues, pausing frequently to choose his words, "I suppose it would be the same with any art form. Why should people care about any art form? Well, you care about the things that touch you in some way, that have meaning for you.

"And some people care," he continues, chuckling some more, "because, as they often tell us after the show, they'd like to be doing this themselves. We come across a lot of people who say, 'Oh, I've always wanted to sing like that. But ... .' So in some ways we do it for them, the people who enjoy watching other people do the thing they dream of doing."

To many of the ensemble's loyal fans, there is an undeniable spiritual element to the typical Chanticleer program, a fact that Jennings, somewhat reluctantly, confesses to.

"It's spiritual without being specifically religious," he says. "It's spiritual in the 'essence of life' sense. And even though so many of our performances are in a church--especially the Christmas program--and even though the music we do is essentially religious in nature, it's not music of any particular denomination; it's not done in a religious context. So people have the freedom to let the music speak to them without all the dogmatic trappings of the church, as it were."

Furthermore, he explains, "this music, born of religion, somehow transcends any one-belief religiousness. We actually get at the essence of something that is greater than any single belief. In a sense, we bypass a lot of the consciousness that humans have about belief."

And how does Chanticleer manage to work such a miracle?

"Mmmmmm, well ... ," he murmurs, considering the matter. "I really don't know."

The Christmas program, he concedes, is the one in which the spiritual nature of the music blends most seamlessly with all that pure unadulterated singing. Though the form of the show is essentially the same from year to year ("There's chant," he says, "a lot of early music, Renaissance music, some music by Spanish composers and always a lot of nonstandard Christmas carols"), the specific songs themselves tend to shift completely every winter.

The current program includes new arrangements of "The Holly and the Ivy," "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "What Child Is This," along with a number of old Christmas spirituals, a haunting, seldom-heard setting of "Ave Maria"--by composer Franz Biebl--and John Tavener's delightful Russian-flavored "Village Wedding."

For many who regularly attend one of Chanticleer's Christmas shows, the event serves as an effective passage from the hectic noise and tumult that Christmas brings; the music becomes an entryway into a more reflective experience of the holiday, regardless of any specific religious significance it holds.

"It's something that we've become aware of over the years," Jennings agrees. "There is certainly plenty of joyful music on the program, but the program also allows for quiet moments in which people can sit and reflect, escape from all the madness of the season. We hear quite often that this was the thing that made Christmas for them. That's a nice thing to hear."

JENNINGS, an accomplished pianist, composer and arranger in his own right, first joined Chanticleer as a countertenor in early 1983. He soon became the group's music director and is credited with ushering the ensemble to new heights by introducing spirituals, gospel music and jazz into the company's repertoire.

Along with his full-time Chanticleer duties, Jennings also directs the Golden Gate Men's Chorus. Since taking the reins of Chanticleer, Jennings seldom sings with the group, though he recently stepped back into the ensemble to replace a singer whose father had passed away. "I enjoyed it," he admits. "I long ago grew tired of singing while being out on the road, but it's always nice being a part of that harmony."

Would Jennings like to elaborate?

"Hmmmm," he says, lapsing back into meditative contemplation. After a moment, he offers this response: "Singing in an ensemble, I think, is very different from singing solo, because in an ensemble like Chanticleer you get a chance to come into harmony, both literally and figuratively speaking, with other human beings. It's something about the sum being greater than any of the parts.

"Sometimes," he teases, "it's amazing what happens."

Such as?

"As a singer, you train yourself," he slowly reveals, after another quiet moment. "You train your body and your voice. You learn all the elements and the technical things that you can--and then you make all of that available to the music. So you end up being the conduit, as it were, and the music uses what you make available to it. And sometimes the music takes over, and things come out of your mouth that you never expected--didn't think you were capable of. You make yourself available for the music to come through you, to have a life of its own, and suddenly it's there, it comes through you, and ... and ..."


"And it's amazing," he sighs, with a burst of what can only be described as giggles. "It's amazing!"

"There," Jennings asks, "does that answer your question?"

Chanticleer performs on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 8 p.m. at St. Vincent Church, Liberty and Basset streets, Petaluma. Tickets are $21-$32. For details, call 415/392-4400 or 800/407-1400.

The group also performs Tuesday (Dec. 21) at 5 and 8pm at Mission Santa Clara, University of Santa Clara, Franklin and Lafayette streets, Santa Clara; and Wednesday (Dec. 22) at 5 and 8pm at the Carmel Mission, Rio Road, Carmel. Tickets are $12-$32. (415.392.4400 or 800.407.1400)

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From the December 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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