October 18, 2023

PU Concerts Opens Celebratory Season With Distinguished Vocal Ensemble

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Concerts launched its 130th season this past week with a total immersion experience provided by a renowned professional chorus enjoying a visit to the University. The San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Chanticleer, led by music director and University graduate Tim Keeler, came to Princeton for a collaboration with the University Glee Club, currently under the direction of conductor Gabriel Crouch. Following days of joint rehearsals, a “Chamber Jam” and a “Live Music Meditation,” the two ensembles presented a concert this past Thursday night at Richardson Auditorium to close out their successful partnership. Typical of Chanticleer’s performances, the program featured repertoire ranging from the very traditional Max Reger and Heinrich Isaac to Hoagy Carmichael and Joni Mitchell, as well as a contemporary work by another Princeton University graduate. 

Now in its 45th season, Chanticleer has performed in the Princeton area before, but last week’s concert represented the ensemble’s debut on the Princeton University Concerts series. For this evening, Keeler programmed “Music of the Silent World,” presenting works which highlighted the interconnections within the natural word and the kinships between people and place. The performance was centered on a choral arrangement of fellow Princeton graduate Majel Connery’s song cycle The Rivers are Our Brothers, newly conceived by Connery and composer, instrumentalist and poet Doug Balliett. The seven-movement cantata musically depicts the Sierra Nevada mountains, with each movement reflecting a different aspect of the Sierra’s natural beauty. 

Connery composed this piece as a vehicle to engage people with the environment and give voice to various aspects of nature. The seven a cappella movements of The Rivers required impeccable tuning, which was well provided by both Chanticleer and the University Glee Club, which joined in two of the movements. Over its long distinguished history, Chanticleer has had many members with a wide range of voice types, and the vocal timbre of the ensemble has understandably changed through the decades. The current ensemble’s vocal palette is heavy on the upper voices; of the 12 Chanticleer singers, six are countertenors, but the Chanticleer sound was consistently well-blended and able to move through dynamic changes with ease. The Glee Club added weight and a solid foundation to the overall sound in their assigned movements, showing equally as much precision as the more experienced Chanticleer.

The singers of Chanticleer must be musically capable of holding their own within the ensemble, but in addition, a number of the choristers proved to be accomplished soloists as well. Tenor Matthew Mazzola carried much of the solo work in the Connery piece, often in graceful duet with one of the countertenors. Countertenor Cortez Mitchell, whose background includes a significant amount of opera performance, provided elegantly contrasting melodies to solo lines throughout the piece. Chanticleer sang the final movement “I Am a River” without music, allowing the singers to communicate well with one another and effectively convey the text, particularly reaching into upper registers on the closing “I Rise.”

Chanticleer is particularly known for close harmony popular arrangements, which no doubt serve as a model for the numerous a cappella vocal groups on Princeton University’s campus. Many of the arrangements in Chanticleer’s repertory were created by past and present members of the ensemble, including current singers Adam Brett Ward, Vineel Garisa Mahal, and Jared Graveley. On Thursday night, Graveley soloed in his own arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” demonstrating a solid bass voice juxtaposed by other singers’ light countertenor sound. Ward’s clever arrangement of a song from the movie Bambi featured a trio of countertenors in an upbeat and energetic performance. Mahal, who had a number of solo opportunities during the course of the evening, has created an appealing arrangement of “The Weather” by the pop-soul band Lawrence, featuring a quartet of two tenors and two countertenors with well-blended and free singing from the full chorus. The ensemble also performed two arrangements of longtime Chanticleer arranger and performer Joseph Jennings, who although he was writing music for a Chanticleer chorus of the 1990s, created works which are just as engaging today. Chanticleer was able to close Thursday night’s performance creating a bond with the full house at Richardson which will surely continue into the future, topping off well their week of partnership with the choristers at Princeton University.

Princeton University Concerts will present its next performance on Thursday, November 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. This concert will feature the Danish String Quartet and music of Purcell, Haydn, and Shostakovich. Ticket information for this event can be obtained by visiting concerts.princeton.edu.