Friday, 17 May 2013


Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (15 May 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 May 2013 with the title "Models who sing like angels".

One of the world’s great a cappella groups, the all-male Chanticleer from San Francisco made its Esplanade debut to a chorus of acclamation and appreciation. It last performed in Singapore during the mid-1990s at Victoria Concert Hall to a no less vociferous reception. The secret of its success was not just down to vocal prowess, but its sheer accessibility and likeability.

What is there not to like about twelve mostly young men who looked like male models and sang like angels? The wide registers afforded by the male voice – from sopranos and altos (singing in falsetto) to deep bass – meant that its repertoire could be equally vast and covering many different genres.

The concert’s title The Siren’s Call was loosely about the allure of beauty and love, with the intendant pleasures and risks, mostly of a wet kind with part of the programme dedicated to the sea. There was also a chronological sequence, beginning with a “madrigal history tour” (to borrow a title from another great male group, the King’s Singers) with music from early greats Palestrina, Monteverdi, Gesualdo (below) and the lesser known Andrea Gabrieli and Nicolas Gombert.

The beauty of Renaissance polyphony is a speciality of Chanticleer’s. With one voice to a part for most pieces, the members blended with much ease and sensitivity, such as in Monteverdi’s Non Sono In Queste Rive (There Are None Upon These Shores) or Gesualdo’s O Doloroso Gioia (Oh Painful Joy), which called for just five voices. There was never a blurred phrase nor one lacking in total clarity, and equally impressive were the evenness of unison for passages of plainchants.

The Romantic era came next, with songs by Grieg, Elgar, Barber and Mahler, the last being an arrangement of Erinnerung (Remembrance) which highlighted the tenderness of a soprano voice, supported by accompaniment of uncommon warmth.

More contemporary were American Mason Bates’s Die Lorelei, based on the most famous German mythological femme fatale (appropriately sung in German), and Finn Jaako Mantyjärvi’s Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae, the unusual setting being a news bulletin in Latin about the sinking of cruise ship MS Estonia in 1994. It seemed ironic that the deaths of innocents could be rendered with such harmonic insouciance and eloquence. 

The shorter second half juxtaposed the earthy, aboriginal-like chants and sliding pitches of the wordless I Hear The Siren’s Call by Chinese-American Chen Yi and the dream-like L’Invitation Au Voyage by American John Corigliano. The contrasts were startling to say the least.

Closer to the spirit of folk music sources were three songs in Irish by Michael McGlynn, all inspired by the sea. The tongue-twisting Dulaman, saluting the Gaelic king of seaweed, made an interesting foil to the familiar Japanese fisherman’s song Sohran Bushi, which sounded too polished by half. Rugged Hokkaido seafarers have sweat and salt on their backs, rather than satin and silk!

Like all Chanticleer concerts, the singers closed with popular songs in arrangement, including the evergreen Shenandoah, Willow, Weep For Me and Temptation. These brought on howls of delight, and by the end of their sole encore, Somebody To Love by Queen, the audience was up on its feet.

Concert photos by courtesy of Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, of course.

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