New Classical Tracks: A Chanticleer Christmas

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
December 7, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — Picture yourself in Stanford Memorial Church at the heart of Stanford University just south of San Francisco. As you admire the stunningly beautiful mosaic tiles from floor to ceiling, and the gorgeous stained glass windows, your ears are graced with the reverberating sound of a Gregorian chant. Then 12 incredible male singers process down the candlelit aisles to the large cavernous stage. That's the setting for this live recording, "A Chanticleer Christmas."

Artistic Director Matt Oltman explains the special meaning behind the way they programmed their new holiday release which flows much like their live concerts. "At Christmastime the purpose is to let people come in and forget. First we have to give them something that allows them to rest, to slow down. And then by the end of it, to have them excited for the Christmas season to be coming and excited and uplifted and renewed with energy, and that's kind of how the program is constructed."

Chanticleer was formed as a fulltime professional vocal ensemble in 1978. Many fans have been introduced to the ensemble during their annual Christmas concerts. There is one piece on this recording which has become a Christmas tradition for Chanticleer. "It's probably the piece by which the majority of people come to know Chanticleer," Matt Oltman admits, "and that's Franz Biebl's very beautiful 'Ave Maria.' We were lucky enough to have been, well, the second group to have recorded it way back in 1990. There was indeed only that one recording until this recording. There's a live recording of the Biebl 'Ave Maria' on this CD so people can hear it anew."

So what are some of the lesser-known pieces we should be listening for on "A Chanticleer Christmas?" "Well, some of the early music pieces," Matt Oltman explains, "in particular the piece by Jacob Handl and Giovanni Maria Nanino. The Nanino had been performed by Chanticleer years and yeas ago. Again, he's not so well known today but in his time, he was considered second only to Palestrina. So his writing has that incredible intimacy, very florid, and it's sort of a perfect celebratory type motet."

In addition to little-known early music pieces, this recording also features a familiar French carol that was given the Chanticleer touch. Matt Oltman laughs as he explains how he created the gorgeous arrangement complete with soprano descant for the French carol, 'Angels We Have Heard on High,' which the ensemble had never before sung in English, "I think that somewhere along the way in my career as a boy soprano at a children's chorus in Des Moines, Iowa, there was a descant I had to sing that was somehow similar. There was something lodged in my memory, but I'm not sure. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. So there was some inspiration there."

One of my favorites on "A Chanticleer Christmas," is the traditional Czech "Rocking Carol." It's a piece that Matt Oltman has championed for a long time. It goes back to his days as a student at Simpson College in Iowa. Every other year the school would hold a quiet, candlelit madrigal dinner. "And one of the traditions," Oltman explains, "was just toward the end when there was the sort of religious moment, we would sing this Rocking Carol. And it was always our favorite moment in the dinner. It was the time when all of us in the group would secretly hold hands under the table and if we were about to graduate a few tears would be shed and whatnot. Come to find out, when I wanted to program this for Chanticleer, it's only published in one single place and that's the old Oxford Book of Carols which was published in 1928 and edited among others by Ralph Vaughan Williams."

Whether you're hearing this music in a magnificent cathedral, or enjoying it with family and friends around the table, "A Chanticleer Christmas," will provide a wonderful accompaniment for your holiday enjoyment.

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