For Song’s 250th Birthday, Voices Ring Out in Praise

04.17.09
Chanticleer
The New York Times

Anniversaries often provide fodder for concert programmers, composers’ and performers’ birthdays being the favorites. On Wednesday evening the superb a cappella men’s choir Chanticleer celebrated a less heralded occasion: the 250th anniversary of “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” said to be the earliest surviving American secular song.

Strangely, that work, by Francis Hopkinson (a friend of George Washington’s and a signer of the Declaration of Independence), was not included in Chanticleer’s engrossing program in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With remarkable elegance and fluidity, the ensemble explored a melting pot of styles.

The program opened with “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” an English hymn set here to a melancholy, traditional Appalachian melody. There were also examples of shape-note music, an American tradition that adds a further graphic element to the notation to facilitate congregational and group singing. A harmonically rich, earthy arrangement of “David’s Lamentation” from “The Original Sacred Harp” by Joseph H. Jennings, Chanticleer’s artistic adviser, was particularly striking. The song “Jefferson,” written during the Revolutionary War in 1779, signified the new patriotic American spirit.

“Night Chant” by the contemporary composer Brent Michael Davids reflects his heritage as a member of the Mohican Nation, evoking traditional ceremonies with Mohican words. At one point the sopranos, accompanied by the earthy sounds of a nose flute, sang over rhythmically intense chants.

“The Homecoming: In Memoriam Martin Luther King Jr.,” a soulful work by David Conte with a text by John Stirling Walker, traversed several keys and moods before ending tranquilly.

The concert also included music from the 17th century by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, a Spanish-born composer who moved to Mexico and wrote solemn liturgical works in Latin, and Juan de Lienas, a Mexican. After a haunting rendition of de Lienas’s eight-part setting of Psalm 115, in which the men’s voices swelled in an immaculate crescendo on the final “Amen,” the mood lightened with “The Queen to Me a Royal Pain Doth Give” and “My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth,” attributed (by Peter Schickele) to P. D. Q. Bach.

Chanticleer also offered deeply felt, expressively shaded interpretations of “Reincarnations” (Op. 16) by Samuel Barber, a setting of three poems on Irish themes by James Stephens.

The program ended with songs by Eric Whitacre and by Stephen Foster, including the lively “Nelly Bly.” As encores, the ensemble offered selections including a striking arrangement of “Summertime,” with dazzling contributions from the sopranos.