When San Francisco-based men’s ensemble Chanticleer performs Tuesday at Baylor University’s Jones Concert Hall, audience members shouldn’t expect a traditional men’s choral sound of bass, baritone and tenor parts.
Chanticleer sings the full choral range of bass, tenor, alto and soprano, the latter covered by countertenors, and a repertory that stretches from the Renaissance to the 21st century, explained music director William Fred Scott. “We can sound like a men’s glee club if we need to, or a Renaissance choir,” he said. “We can sing quite florid and quite high. There’s no other group like it in this country.”
The 12-voice ensemble is a full-time choir rather than one assembled for one or two touring runs a year, performing some 110 concerts. In its 40th year — 10 years fewer than the equally well-known and talented King’s Singers from England — Chanticleer, its name rooted in French for “singing” and “clear,” has a reputation for vocal precision and blend coupled to emotion.
“Each (of the singers) is an individual soloist. What they can do . . . is make it sound as one voice,” said Scott, in his fourth year as the group’s music director. Scott is a former Atlanta Opera conductor and assistant conductor of the Opera Company of Boston under Sarah Caldwell and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under conductor Robert Shaw.
More than 60 men audition for the group in any given year. That number generally is whittled down to 18 singers, who then come out for a weekend audition that goes beyond singing ability. “We want to look for a voice that has personality. We want someone who’s a good musician, flexible stylistically, a quick read and good at retaining,” he said. “And we want to know who’s going to be the good colleague?”
The latter is needed for the give-and-take of discussing the music the group sings for its best interpretation — “There’s a kind of theology behind every piece we sing,” Scott said — and the social binding needed for any professional music group that travels extensively and depends on that most human of instruments, the voice.
“Our singers are wonderfully vulnerable. Your instrument is your whole body and soul,” he noted. “It’s all you, and all you on the line all the time.”
It’s that finely-honed collective instrument that’s put to use in Tuesday’s concert program, “Heart of a Soldier.” That program spans a wide range of experiences that war brings: the excitement of battle and defending one’s homeland; the joy of camaraderie; the ache of separation from friends and family; the heartbreak of loss and death.
The concert also spans 16th century religious compositions about the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and, more than a millennium later, the capture of Constantinople; Russian drinking songs; Andrew Sisters’ hits and several contemporary arrangements.
It also includes a Mason Bates commission, a setting of texts by poet Walt Whitman, that starts with drumbeats of an army marching to war and closes with drumbeats of caissons carrying caskets home. “This (work) may be what the entire program is about. There’s no art of war songs, no patriotic numbers . . . It’s about war and how it has worked historically,” Scott explained, adding, “You realize this whole thing would have been better if we had peace.”
Veterans in their audiences have expressed how the wide range of emotions and experiences sampled in “Heart of a Soldier” mirrored their experiences, said the music director. Chanticleer concerts aim for their listeners’ hearts as well as their ears, he added. “All of our programs are real programs. They’re quite substantial in terms of emotional impact.”
As a result, the men’s ensemble has built a loyal fan base over the years. With four Baylor performances since 2000, some of those loyal fans are likely to be at Tuesday’s concert.
“The amazing thing I have noticed is that our audiences are very loyal. They’re almost in love with us before we begin singing,” he said. “There’s a wonderful feeling of excitement and love in the air when Chanticleer is involved . . . There’s nothing that can compare to the power and spirit of people making music together.”