Closing concert of Chanticleer's first National Youth Choral Festival was a resounding success

Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin

SAN FRANCISCO — A 2009 study found that 42.6 million Americans sing in 270,000 choruses around the United States. Monday night, a high-class representation of those singing millions filled the stage at Davies Symphony Hall — over-filled it, in fact, spilling into the surrounding balconies and then flooding the concert hall with sheer exuberance and refined song.

As the night's organizers kept saying, it was an incredible sight: 416 high school singers from a dozen top choruses, standing elbow to elbow and serving up a world of music, from Gabrieli to Gaelic and Kenyan songs. A few other adjectives apply, too: melodious, light-filled, inspiring.

The choruses had traveled from as far as Georgia and Hawaii, and from as close by as Palo Alto and Piedmont, to participate in the annual National Youth Choral Festival organized by Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based male chorus that pretty much defines the art of singing. After four days of rehearsals, lessons and master classes — some taught by Frederica von Stade, one of our epoch's greatest mezzo-sopranos — the groups gathered at Davies en masse to join in "The Singing Life," as Monday's festival-capping event was titled.

"Absolutely stunning and amazing," said Matthew Oltman, Chanticleer's music director.

He was grinning. The massive chorus had just finished singing Gabrieli's "Jubilate Deo," a program-opening performance filled with gladness. Even better  was what followed: William Byrd's "Ave Verum Corpus," which ushered in a hushed, merciful peace across the concert hall.

The hall, filled with the singers' families and friends, was abuzz as the program advanced. An honors choir, drawn from the larger group and augmented by several Chanticleer members, sang the English madrigal "Sweet Honey Sucking Bees," by John Wilbye, with appropriate mischief. "Chou Nu Er," by Taiwanese composer Yi-Wen Chang — 2009-10 winner of Chanticleer's Student Composer Competition — drew a mood of glowing melancholy from the 416 voices.

Next came the night's centerpiece: the American premiere of "Annonciation," a largely forgotten cantata by the late French composer Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur, who was a contemporary and friend of Olivier Messiaen, and whose music has been championed by Chanticleer.

His cantata, setting the religious poetry of Loys Masson, was commissioned by Radio France and performed on a live Christmas Eve broadcast in 1951. But, until Monday, an American audience had never heard it performed — not one of those 270,000 American choruses had ever performed it, it seems. (That study, by the way, was conducted by Chorus America, a nonprofit arts service group.)

"Annonciation" is a quintessentially French affair — transparent, refined, unfolding in 10 movements and bearing a resemblance to Messiaen, with chords that conjure blinding light pouring through stained glass, and celestial sonorities gilded by harp and celesta.

Given the limited rehearsal time, this was an impressive performance. Von Stade narrated in French, displaying her impeccable diction. She was joined by an orchestra — drawn from youth orchestras around the bay — which played this challenging piece with control and sensitivity, and by a pair of exceptional high school soloists, soprano Patricia St. Peter and tenor Matthew Curtis.

Tossing in hundreds of additional voices — choral outbursts at once delicate and ecstatic, with Chanticleer's 12 singers peppered among the high schoolers — this was an important exercise in collaboration for everyone involved.

Then what everyone was waiting for happened next: Chanticleer itself. The chorus performed two numbers with its usual astonishing flair and absolute precision of detail, coupled with depths of soul.

"Summertime," featuring the stratospheric solo work of alto Cortez Mitchell, brought down the house before the evening finished on soothing notes. There was "Shenandoah," featuring von Stade as soloist. Finally, the directors of all 12 high school choruses — Palo Alto High School, Piedmont High School, San Francisco School of the Arts High School and all the rest — came out to stand beside their 416 students, joining them to sing a heart-melting "Ave Maria."was what followed: William Byrd's "Ave Verum Corpus," which ushered in a hushed, merciful peace across the concert hall.