Among the many musical offerings for the holidays, "A Chanticleer Christmas" has become one of the most consistently rewarding. Monday evening at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, the San Francisco-based men's chorus launched the latest edition of its annual concerts, and the results were dazzling.
Now in its 35th season, the 12-man group continues to weather changes. Seasoned members have retired or moved on, as new singers -- all looking impossibly young -- have joined the lineup. Yet under interim music director Jace Witting, the impeccable musical values established by tenor Louis Botto, who founded Chanticleer in 1978 and led the organization until his death in 1997, are still very much in evidence.
So is the extraordinary range of musical styles. Monday's program, which repeats through Dec. 23 at various area locations, moved from medieval chant to American spirituals, European choral works to contemporary arrangements of Christmas carols. Singing in English, Latin, German, Spanish and Russian, the ensemble's phrasing was flawless, its dynamics crisp and polished.
The Christmas programs always begin with a processional; Monday, three Advent chants -- "Veni, et ostende," "O Rex gentium" and "Veni, veni Emmanuel" -- served nicely. The singers, each holding a lighted candle, entered from the rear; as they made their way to the stage, their voices blended in pure, resonant waves that seemed to expand into every corner
In an arrangement of "In dulci jubilo" -- which included a densely layered setting by Hieronymous Praetorius, and a masterfully ornamented version by J.S. Bach -- the singers continued to produce wonderfully unified sound.
Each member of the chorus makes fine individual contributions. For works by Slovenian composer Jacob Handl, Italy's Andrea Gabrieli, Spain's Cristóbal de Morales and others, the singers moved into configurations designed to showcase various aspects of their sound. The low voices can produce a drone that is massive and ancient-sounding; the sopranos and altos sing with aching purity and tenderness. For a pair of 15th-century English carols by anonymous composers, the singers were grouped by voice type. "Alleluya" featured the six high singers in soft harmonies; in "Gaudete," which followed, the basses and baritones wove themselves into the mix, with vibrant results.
Still, Chanticleer's power lay in the silken harmonies of the ensemble. Massed in a trio of works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, they produced poised, otherworldly sound. Francis Poulenc's "O magnum mysterium," all diaphanous textures and subtle shadings, offered a radiant showcase, and "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," by contemporary Swedish composer Jan Sandström, brought the program's first half to a glowing conclusion.
After intermission, the singers took a more relaxed approach, trading evening wear for casual dress. Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria" -- another Chanticleer tradition -- introduced the set with a warm, lustrous performance. Herbert Howells' "A Spotless Rose" was just as lovely.
"A Chanticleer Christmas" always benefits from holiday carols performed in arrangements by the group's former music director, Joseph Jennings. This year, "Star of Wonder" was the standout. A medley of spirituals, also arranged by Jennings, closed the program on a fervent note. The encore was a beautifully burnished version of "Silent Night."
This is a holiday concert without bells and whistles -- no animated snowflakes, no dancing Christmas trees. All you get is music through the ages, sung with breathtaking clarity. As performed by the 12 voices of Chanticleer, that's always enough.
Contact Georgia Rowe and email@example.com.
A Chanticleer Christmas
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 11
Where: Stanford Memorial Church, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford University
Tickets: $27-$65, depending on venue; www.chanticleer.org
Also: 8 p.m. Dec. 14, Cathedral of Christ the Light, 2121 Harrison St., Oakland; 8 p.m. Dec. 15, St. Ignatius Church, 650 Parker Ave., San Francisco; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19, Livermore Performing Arts Center, 2400 First St,; 6 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 21, Carmel Mission, 3080 Rio Road; 6 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 22, Mission Santa Clara, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real; and 8 p.m. Dec. 23, St. Ignatius Church, 650 Parker Ave., San Francisco