Ensemble Goes New Age

Eclectic group’s 29th recording explores diverse spiritual traditions

“Sound in Spirit,” the latest CD from the pitch-perfect male vocal ensemble Chanticleer glows with a pantheistic reverence for the transcendent. It’s the same warm glow we have come to expect from a group that consistently sells out its annual Christmas concerts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art way in advance.

The 27-year old group, founded by the late gay countertenor Louis Botto, has frequently addressed the spiritual through song and poetry. But from their earliest recordings of Renaissance vocal music, Christmas songs, gospel, and spirituals, Chanticleer has mostly focused on sacred Christian music. Here they open their arms wider, embracing Buddhist, metaphysical, and other spiritual paths.

The vehicle for Chanticleer’s spiritual coming out of sorts is a virtually seamless soundscape, especially conceived for CD, that unites contrasting traditional and cutting edge composition in a manner that underscores the ultimate oneness of diverse spiritual paths.

In the tradition of much New Age music, “Sound in Spirit” begins with the sounds of water, crickets, and wind. These soon segue into “Incantation” one of three excerpts from Jan Gilbert’s “NightChants,” a 70-minute, theatrical and vocal celebration comprised of 14 experimental chant settings. Gilbert’s mysterious incantation opens the door to “Axion Estin,” a more familiar sounding19th century Romanian chant notable for its mystical bass drone.

Next follow Chanticleer music director Joseph Jennings’ short “Sound in Spirit,” a primitive-sounding tribute to Buddhism, and several pieces of the Gregorian and Renaissance sacred music for which the group is famed. All are performed with Chanticleer’s characteristic sincerity and purity of tone.

One of the disc’s most gratifying selections, “In Winter’s Keeping,” was composed especially for Chanticleer by Japanese traditional music specialist Jackson Hill, who adapts tunings, effects, and ornamentation common to Buddhist chant to create a gorgeous setting of a seventh-century poem about the most beautiful season of the year.

Such memorable music paves the way for the most experimental work on the program, Giacinto Scelsi’s “Gloria” from “Tre canti sacri” (“Three Sacred Songs”) for eight mixed voices. “Gloria” is an especially wild ride in which traditional Roman Catholic chant seems to break apart. According to musicologist Michel Rigoni, Scelsi’s songs use “elements from known traditions in order to go beyond the… conflicts between the religions, striving for a religion without god or worship but in search of a profound reality of the universe and a spirit of peace.” The men of Chanticleer outdo themselves , imbuing Scelsi’s extraordinary music with vital power.

Even in pieces such as Sarah Hopkins’ “Past Life Melodies,” which rely on harmonies familiar to Western ears, Chanticleer enlivens matters by indulging in the kinds of overtone chanting sometimes encountered in Tibetan ritual. Tibet also surfaces in the final selection, “Grace to You” from Gilbert’s “NightChants,” in which Jennings plays Tibetan singing bowl.

Because Chanticleer frequently sells out its two New York Christmas programs well in advance, the group has increased the number of performances from two to four. The program’s first half will consist mainly of early music, while the second half will include carols and other works likely familiar to many audience members. Expect contemporary compositions by two composers new to Chanticleer, Eric Thiman and Anthony Hedges, along with Jennings’ arrangements of Christmas gospels and the lovely Canadian Huron carol.

Bass Eric Alatorre, a handlebar mustached 16-year veteran of the ensemble, characterized Chanticleer traditional end-of-the-year program as “the telling of the Christmas story through several hundred years of music.”

Assistant music Director Matthew D. Oltman prefers to get physical.

“It’s one of those things like falling in love. You don’t know what it feels like until you’ve experienced it. There’s something about the season, the music, the weather outside, and hearing a tune that you’ve known since a child that makes the whole thing such a special experience.”

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