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A Marketing Revamp for Chanticleer?

September 29, 2008

By the end of the sublime choral concert I experienced on Thursday in Berkeley by Chanticleer, I was convinced of two things: One -- that the all-male a cappella vocal ensemble deserves every bit of praise it gets from the classical music press, and two -- that the ensemble needs an image overhaul.

Let's start with point one, with which most people would agree. The opening concert of the group's 31st anniversary tour brought together songs from many different parts of the American choral tradition, from the simple, spun-gold lines of the traditional Appalachian shape-note song, "Guide Me, O Though Great Jehovah" to the mesmerizing, primal soundscape of Mohican composer Brent Michael Davies' "Night Chant." At various different points in the two-hour-long program, the music took us up, brought us down, made us laugh, made us cry, cradled us in waves of softness and jolted our systems to the core. When I came to my senses after the experience was over, I was struck by the diversity of the group's repertoire and the spine-tingling beauty of its sound.

Now to point two: The only thing remiss with the performance was the presentation. I know that Chanticleer gets a lot of marketing mileage out of the preppy-pristine squeakiness exuded by its singers on stage. For some weird reason, many people, especially in this country, get off on the choirboy thing. But no one in the ensemble looks comfortable in a stiff tuxedo. The stiffness of the singers' garb is worsened further by the little speeches that they give between songs. I don't have a problem with the introductions per se -- most of the content in Thursday's concert was interesting and the pontificating never went on for more than a minute or two. But the delivery seemed so canned and rehearsed. I can't understand how singers who sing so organically together, who seem to move, vocalize and breathe in such perfect harmony, can be so robotic on stage when they're not singing.

Interestingly, when I was out in the lobby after the concert talking to a couple of the ensemble members, I got a completely different impression of them. Something of the naturalness that comes across in their singing was also present in their warm way of meeting and chatting with audience members after their gig. All the formality vanished in the post-show environment. Which made the pompous dress and speechifying seem all the more absurd.

While it's true that for some concert series, the group eschews the tuxedos for, say, black pants and shirts, or, at Christmas, preppy sweaters and slacks. But regardless, the vibe is still decidedly old-fashioned. Grandmothers and elderly gay men might like the stuffy aesthetic, but I imagine it leaves almost everyone else cold.

It seems sad to me that a group whose members are so young (most of the singers are in their mid-20s) should attract such an aging audience. There were quite a few zimmer frames in the house on Thursday and my friend and I were probably the youngest people there by about 20 years. The church in which Chanticleer performed was right next door to the Berkeley campus, but I don't recall seeing anyone who looked like a student.

Something needs to be done to rectify the issue and the solution might just be to do something about the group's presentation. Chanticleer deserves and needs to find a broader, younger audience. We should regard these guys as rock stars. Doing away with the penguin suits and the rehearsed speeches might be a good start.


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    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 9, 2010 at 10:57 PM  

  • You have missed the most important.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 18, 2010 at 6:51 AM  

  • I have the solution for you: Cantus. If you ever have the chance to take in a live performance, jump at the chance! All that you want out of Chanticleer, Cantus does - while maintaining their musical integrity. They're Minnesota Public Radio's & Performance Today's Artists in Residence this year & are tearing it up - videos, interviews, performances, etc. Great stuff I think you'll enjoy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 28, 2010 at 3:01 PM  

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