Embracing the Renaissance and YouTube, Too

05.28.10
Chanticleer
The New York Times

By Chloe Veltman

A few days after Jay Leno had seen the all-male a cappella ensemble Chanticleer singing Christmas songs on the “Today” show last December, he poked fun at it during the monologue on his own show. After asking his audience if it had ever heard of the group (a voice offstage answered no), Mr. Leno showed a clip of group members singing, and then cut to a shot of himself in white tie, holding a score and singing in falsetto. 

Within a few days the group had created a tongue-in-cheek vocal tribute to Mr. Leno, which it posted on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=glRVCl14sbU). The video has received almost 18,000 views to date.

Until about a year ago, it would have been hard to imagine this pristine-toned, Grammy-winning ensemble doing such a thing. But under its recently appointed music director, Matthew Oltman, Chanticleer seems to be entering a more media-savvy phase, just one indication of changes taking place in the group these days. The evolution, both artistic and organizational, could give Chanticleer, one of the few full-time professional choruses in the United States, even greater visibility.

Mr. Oltman, 35, became the group’s artistic director last July after 10 years as a member of Chanticleer under its longstanding predecessor, Joseph Jennings. In less than a year, the reedy, bespectacled Mr. Oltman has begun placing his imprint.

In concert, its 12 vocalists seem more self-assured and able to show off their individual personalities while still blending in musically with the whole. The repertory is more balanced, with less emphasis on gospel and spiritual songs. The ensemble’s once formal image has softened slightly. The singers still often wear tailcoats, white shirts and bow ties, but they now also perform in more casual attire, sometimes switching between sweaters and slacks and tuxedos.

Audiences have noticed. “The quality of the sound is more joyful and full-throated,” said Vance George, director emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and a regular at Chanticleer shows. “The guys are singing out. But at the same time, I also find them capable of intimate, soft delivery.”

Other changes are also afoot. Chanticleer is touring more widely than ever before. In June it will make its second visit to China in a year. And there are signs that Chanticleer and groups like it are inspiring a new generation. The inaugural National Youth Choral Festival, held in San Francisco this spring, was attended by more than 400 high school students from around the country. The newly formed Louis A. Botto Choir, a small youth chorus for Bay Area singers aged 14 to 20, named after the musicologist and tenor who founded Chanticleer, will hold auditions throughout the summer and have its first rehearsal over the Labor Day weekend.

Chanticleer has come a long way since the late 1970s, when a collection of talented amateur singers led by Mr. Botto, who died in 1997, began performing mainly Renaissance music. After struggling financially early on, the group ultimately became a fully professional ensemble, though turnover among the singers has been particularly high in recent years, partly because of the grueling touring schedule.

In addition to appearing regularly in the Bay Area, the ensemble has performed in halls like the Barbican Center in London, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. When not traveling, performing or rehearsing for four hours a day, five days a week, the singers spend much of their time involved in outreach programs in schools nationwide.

Despite the changes, Mr. Oltman still honors Chanticleer’s past; for example, he remains passionate about Renaissance music. This week Chanticleer performs a series of concerts featuring music by 16th- and 17th-century English composers like Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. Mr. Oltman also intends to continue commissioning new works, especially by young composers and arrangers like Vince Peterson. He is arranging “Cells Planets,” by the New York indie rock band Little Grey Girlfriend, for the ensemble’s tour next season.

Although the spirituals that Mr. Jennings favored aren’t as prominent in Mr. Oltman’s programming (Mr. Jennings’s roots lie in the Deep South, Mr. Oltman’s in Iowa), the new music director retains some in the choir’s repertory in honor of his predecessor. Last year’s Christmas program, as usual, included a medley of seasonal spirituals arranged by Mr. Jennings.

Mr. Oltman seems to be off to a good start. With 42.6 million Americans singing in some 270,000 choruses, according to the latest statistics by the choral service organization Chorus America, Chanticleer has the potential to reach a vast audience, especially if its maintains its current level of touring and educational pursuits.

But challenges remain. Mr. Oltman has to continue to improve the performance of an already high-quality group in light of turnover among the members. Balancing the audience’s expectations of the more formal side of Chanticleer with its newer, more casual side will require careful management. The mild-mannered Mr. Oltman must also forge an identity for himself independent of that of Mr. Jennings, a charismatic leader of international reputation.

Mr. Oltman is seemingly aware of the hurdles ahead. “Continuing to make progress is daunting,” Mr. Oltman said. “But it’s a good kind of daunting.”