Voices of yuletide

San Francisco classical vocal ensemble Chanticleer performs its annual holiday program

Chanticleer, here a baker’s dozen.

Chanticleer, here a baker’s dozen.

Live! Chanticleer performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, December 23, in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, 1017 11th St., $25. For information, call 766-2277. The concert was nearly sold out as of late last week, but even if the ticket agency is cleaned out, there will probably be a limited number of turned-back tickets at the door--arrive 30-45 minutes early with cash for the purchase, and it’s likely you’ll get in.

Chanticleer will be in town on Sunday evening, for what has become an annual Christmas concert. And this year finds the 12-member (plus music director Joseph Jennings), all-male a cappella group moving in high gear, both in artistic and business terms.

Chanticleer earned a regional following in the late ’70s, starting as musical ambassadors representing San Francisco and the gay movement, and went national and then international during the ’80s, growing in artistic stature and broadening into a mainstream classical group along the way. Chanticleer’s been putting out excellent recordings on the Teldec label for years now. What’s changed is that more people are noticing. The group finally picked up an overdue Grammy in 2000 for their Colors of Love CD; last year’s Magnificat hit the top five on Billboard’s classical chart.

Chanticleer’s October release, Christmas with Chanticleer, is also doing very well. In January, Chanticleer will premiere a new “Easter music drama” by the popular English composer John Tavener (co-commissioned with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). More will be in store come 2003, when Chanticleer will mark its 25th anniversary. It’s probably fair to say that Chanticleer gives more concerts around the world (and sells more recordings) than any other classical group from Northern California.

This year’s Chanticleer Christmas program (which this writer heard in Berkeley last week) is a very smooth and polished affair. As ever, the concert opens with house lights down and the singers entering in a processional, bearing candles and wearing formal tuxes, singing Gregorian chant. This leads into early music with Latin texts (lovely, lofty selections by Josquin Desprez and Tomás Luis de Victoria).

Next come sparely written 20th-century pieces that reference older styles—a set of variations on “Lo! How an every-blooming rose” by Hugo Distler, two short pieces drawing on Eastern Orthodox musical stylings by Tavener, and a piece by contemporary Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi. Tuxes give way to sweaters at intermission, with the second half opening with a Chanticleer holiday favorite, the soaring “Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl, who died at age 95 this past October. Next comes a set of carols from France, Wales, England and America—a revival hymn from Appalachia, and a pensive carol on a traditional melody from the Huron tribe.

Last comes a medley moving from traditional German and English melodies to American spirituals—an impassioned A minor key melody with lyrics about “Mary and the baby … It’s a holy baby”), and a swinging number recalling the Gospel quartet style, looking at the crowding and confusion at the birth scene in the stable (“Oxen hauling! Hens a-squalling!”).

Eight of these selections are found on the new CD. More to the point, they reflect something that sets Chanticleer’s Christmas concert apart: There are plenty of multicultural holiday events out there, but this is one of the few programs that doesn’t shy away from the religious origins of the holiday—the staggering, mind-blowing happenstance of a very special baby entering life in such an unlikely and uncomfortable way. You don’t need to be a believer: It’s just that the story of Jesus’ birth, mysterious and wonderful as it can be, is the source from which the holiday—and most of its better music—flows.