By Louis Lebherz
IT IS RARE for a frequent concertgoer to feel that what one has just heard approached perfection. Last Tuesday evening at the Carmel Mission Basilica, Chanticleer—the “orchestra of voices” as it known around the world—twelve male singers (six countertenors, three tenors, and three basses) brought to the sold-out audience an evening of artistry which stirred in the hearts of all a deep feeling of peace and joy. As the lights in the church dimmed, an ancient Gregorian plainchant, A solis ortus cardine, was heard wafting from the side chapel. First in unison and, as it developed, in octaves, the Latin text in seven verses told the story of the miracle of the birth of the Christ. Midway through the chant the choir, with each member holding a candle, began to solemnly process up to the main altar. The lights in the church came up and a member of the ensemble spoke respectfully to the audience about the concert they were about to sing, beginning with a set of five renaissance motets by various composers. The intricate weaving of as many as six different vocal lines came together in perfect harmony. The texts in Latin and Italian were so clearly interpreted and delivered, that one need not look at the comprehensive program provided to understand the words.
The program began to diversify as John Rutter’s setting of Il est né le divin enfant, a Spanish villancico (Christmas carol), A un nio llorando by Francisco Guerrero, and then a premiere of a setting of a traditional Swedish carol Staffan var en stallendrng by Finnish translator and composer Jaakko Mntyjrvi that tells the legend of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, who was a stable-boy in King Herod’s household. This was followed by a traditional Catalan villancico, E la don don, a lively, syncopated dialogue between the shepherds. American composer Steven Sametz’ piece, Gaudete!, which is the second of his Two Medievel Lyrics. This portion of the concert ended with Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria; a four-voice choir answered by a trio of solo voices expressed a richly sonorous interplay between the Latin texts of the devotional Angelus and the Ave Maria.
The evening closed with three familiar English carols, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear arranged by Chanticleer Music Director Emeritus Joseph Jennings, the calypso West Indian spiritual, The Virgin Mother Had a Baby Boy, and Jennings’ arrangement of O Come All Ye Faithful, blending a traditional setting of the first verse with a virtuosic harmonization of the final verse, Yea, Lord, we greet thee.
It is actually impossible, I believe, for a musical performance to achieve perfection. As a professional solo singer I’m sure that if one asked these performers if they were completely satisfied with their contributions, they would have seen glaring things that pass unnoticed by most listeners. The quest to create perfection is the motivation artists tap while striving each time to find new interpretations of the same material to keep the pieces fresh. Inevitably, they make new discoveries with every go. That a performance can never reach absolute perfection inspires the artists to come back—night after night—with fresh enthusiasm. It is this drive—this high-wire act—that makes each performance unique, for the singers no less than the audience. Chanticleer will return again next year to the Carmel Mission in December, and the church will fill up with many of the same audience, and the audience will once again be dazzled by this special group of twelve gifted singers. I’ll be there.