In one of the most memorable narratives from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” a vainglorious rooster named Chanticleer is tricked by a wily fox into becoming his unwitting victim. The fox preys on the rooster’s vanity by asking him to crow, knowing full well that to perform this act, the latter will most likely outstretch his neck and close his eyes. When Chanticleer does what is expected, the fox grabs him by the throat. The moral of the tale, which takes another turn before it ends happily for the rooster, is that one should never trust flattery.
It is this particular singing rooster that inspired the name of the greatest male vocal ensemble of our time. Founded in 1978 in San Francisco, the 12-member Chanticleer has toured the world (they perform more than 100 concerts per year), recorded more than 30 albums and won two Grammy Awards. Indeed, “Billboard Magazine” ranks the group among the “Top Ten Best-selling Classical Artists.”
Next Friday, April 19, Chanticleer comes to Aiken to perform on the main stage of the Etherredge Center as part of the 2012-2013 USCA Cultural Series. The program will feature selections from the group’s standard repertoire, which “spans 10 centuries from Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony and Romantic art song to contemporary music, jazz, spirituals and world music.”
For their current 35 anniversary season, Chanticleer is featuring a program that they have entitled “The Siren’s Call,” undoubtedly a reference to the sweet singing of the legendary sea nymphs who lured sailors – Odysseus was one of their intended victims – to their doom. Indeed, all of the pieces in the program make direct or indirect reference to either these mythological creatures, to travel, to bodies of water, or to temptation in general.
After several selections from the group’s songbook of 16th-century madrigals, works by such composers as Gabrieli, Palestrina and Monteverdi, Chanticleer will tackle two songs by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, perhaps most famous for “Pomp and Circumstance.” In this case, they will perform “I laid me down to slumber,” which was, in part, inspired by the lovely singing voice of the composer’s wife Nina, and “Yea, Cast Me from the Heights of the Mountains,” which comes from Grieg’s “Greek Anthology,” works based on Greek poems rife with classical references – in this case, how love is more overpowering than even the thunderbolt of Zeus.
The first half of the program will also include a magnificent musical transcription by Samuel Barber of a poem by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, a piece that describes a sanctuary “out of the swing of the sea.” There will also be Gustav Mahler’s “Erinnerung” or “Remembrance,” which begins with the stanza: “My love awakes the songs ever anew. The songs awaken my love ever anew.”
The last two pieces before intermission make direct reference to watery mysteries. The first is “Die Lorelei” from the song cycle “Sirens” by contemporary American composer Martin Bates. This particular song is based on Heinrich Heine’s poem about a songstress atop a rocky cliff towering above the Rhine River. The sad song of this particular siren so enthralls a passing fisherman that he loses all consciousness of the dangers around him. The second, written in Latin by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyrarvi, is a musical response to the news of the sinking of the ferry “Estonia” in the Baltic Sea in 1997. More than 900 lives were lost in the disaster, whose cause is still undetermined.
The second half of program begins with “I Hear the Siren’s Call,” a brand new composition by Chinese-American composer Chen Yi in honor of Chanticleer’s current anniversary season. The siren’s hypnotic call, in this case, is made up of “nonsense syllables and sound effects to create an otherworldly atmosphere.”
That piece is followed by “L’Invitation au Voyage” by one of America’s greatest living composers, John Corigliano, most famous perhaps for his opera “The Ghosts of Versailles,” and a two works by Irish composer Michael McGlynn, both of which celebrate his country’s links to the sea.
Most of the second half of the program will be taken up with a selection of folk songs, jazz and spirituals, all of which will touch upon the seductive nature of music. The program is, of course, subject to change due to the exigencies of touring, but most of the works to be performed that night will undoubtedly be among those that have been recorded by the group, and copies of many of Chanticleer’s recordings will be available for purchase in the lobby.
Next Friday’s concert provides a rare opportunity for area residents to hear firsthand a group that has been heralded as “an orchestra of voices.” For ticket information, call the Etherredge Center Box Office at 803-641-3305.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC and London, UK: The History Press) is available online and at local retail outlets.