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Siren Call

March 18, 2009

Contemporary composers can't seem to get enough of working with Chanticleer. The multiple Grammy Award-winning, all male vocal ensemble might have originally established its international reputation with incandescent interpretations of Renaissance and Medieval works and gone on to earn a mass following through catchy Christmas carol and gospel arrangements. But these days, it's the group's partnerships with cutting-edge composers such as Douglas Cuomo, Shulamit Ran and Chen Yi that are setting the music world alight. "The biggest challenge is writing a piece that's worthy of the group's greatness," longstanding Chanticleer collaborator Augusta Read Thomas recently said.

To celebrate entering its third decade, the 31-year-old ensemble has commissioned three emerging artists in their early thirties to create new works for Chanticleer's upcoming Composers/Our Age concert series. Also known on the club scene as DJ Masonic, the Virginia-raised, Berkeley-based composer Mason Bates' first major choral work Sirens explores the magnetic call of the ancient Greek mythical seductresses through setting of poems about sirens from several different traditions. Samuel Beckett's abyss-staring 1983 monograph, Worstward Ho, serves as inspiration for No Matter by the Grammy-nominated, London-born Tarik O'Regan. Meanwhile, the poetry of Iraq war veteran Brian Turner and the 13th century Persian bard Rumi come together in New York composer Shawn Crouch's The Garden of Paradise.

The highlight of the group's first concert of these works which I saw last night in Berkeley, was undoubtedly Bates' Sirens. It was only during this piece, which took up the entire second half of the program, that Chanticleer's singers hit their stride. The first half of the program, though less memorable, possesses some beautiful moments. No Matter entombs Beckett's nihilistic poetry in whispering-undulating phrases and stark fifths. The Garden of Paradise features wild contrasts between the flighty, bird-like upper lines and the constantly shifting, belly-rumbling lower voices. The piece also includes some memorable word painting -- such as on the word "maut" (meaning death) which stands out like a car wreck from the preceding texture. The piece makes for a powerful war requiem with its contrast between Rumi's ancient words and Turner's contemporary reflections on life in a war zone. ("Akbar stirs the chai, the carries his sleeping four-year-old, Habib, to bed under glow-in-the-dark stars arranged on the ceiliing" is a line, sung heartacheingly simply by the tenors, that I won't easily forget.) But No Matter suffers from a thinness to the sound -- the piece comes across as anemic and there were some intonation problems in the challenging soprano lines in last night's performance. And the group's articulation of Beckett's and Turner's texts wasn't as clear as it ought to have been.

Chanticleer's talent crystallized in Sirens, however. I felt like I was being taken on a journey through space and time with this piece, which mixes together passages in Ancient Greek from Book XII of The Odyssey, Heinrich Heine's poem "Die Lorelei", Pietro Aretino's lovely sonnet from the 16th century, "Stelle, Vostra Merce L'Eccelse Sfere", a poem of the native Quechua (a South American tribe) entitled "Sirinu Nuqa Rikuni A", a section from the Book of Matthew "The Calling of the First Disciples", and, finally, a return to the The Odyssey at the close.

The piece glitters with mesmerizing textures throughout, luring the audience, like the unfortunate sailor in Heine's poem, to temptation and ultimate doom. The piece is an essay in the art of seduction, in fact. Shakers and heavy vocal whispers lace the Quecha poem with mystery. The hyperbolic dynamic contrasts in the section from Matthew (the singers go from quiet to loud and back again in the space of a single bar at times) create extreme intensity -- suggesting the meeting point of beauty and danger. Bates' setting of Heine rolls forward like waves crashing over rocks while exuding a sparse, despairing quality. And reflecting Bates' interest in electronic music with its ambient throbbing lines and parts almost reminiscent of hip-hop scratching, Sirens brings to mind a slightly sinister courtship dance between ancient and modern sensibilties.

I was tossed from shore to shore by Chanticleer's performance. The linguistic capabilities of the group are astounding. I didn't hear a vowel out of place, despite the complexity of the changing tongues in which the movements of the work are set. There is a lively flow to Bates' music, and the vocalists seemed as much swept along by the sounds, seduced by them, as the audience was.

Chanticleer's Composers/Our Age concerts continue this week at the following venues:

Mission Santa Clara, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, Wednesday, March 18 at 8 p.m.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street, San Francisco, Friday, March 20 at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 21 at 8 p.m., Sunday, March 22 at 5 p.m.

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