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After-thoughts of Christmas Music

December 17-18, 2005

By Seán Martinfield

January 9, 2006

It was a challenging week-end for (say it, say it) Christmas Music as featured in two of The City's most beautiful Catholic churches.

Challenging because of the groups presenting it - the much-celebrated and Grammy Award winning men's ensemble, Chanticleer, and the dedicated choir members of Mission Dolores Basilica. Chanticleer is all about Art for Art's Sake. The Basilica Choir is all about Art for Christ's Sake. What these diverse musicians share in common is pride in their product and a firm commitment to their separate cause.

For most working singers, particularly those involved with "sacred music" - whether as salaried Union members or unpaid Volunteers - the month of December is usually about just saying "No" to partying and "Yes" to flu shots, mufflers and gloves, handfuls of vitamins and whatever else it might take to keep the vocal cords primed and puckered for the Annual One Night Stand or Midnight Mass. For us out in the pews - the fans, the faithful subscribers, the loyal congregation, or the uninitiated (perhaps leery and skeptical) date/companions - it soon became abundantly clear: anything we can sing Chanticleer sings higher and the Basilica Choir sings louder.

Saturday night, as predicted, the rain began to pour down on the high and always well-lit steeples of St. Ignatius Church. Only my previous experiences with Chanticleer would get me out on a night like this. The all-male ensemble proudly claims San Francisco as its home and the Music Director, Joseph Jennings, keeps his in the Castro District. Each member is exquisitely trained, their bios listing a variety of music degrees and unusual performance credits ranging from the ballet to the synagogue, from Baroque to contemporary jazz. Some of the guys are married; others are into speaking French and baking. I wondered if a totally inexperienced viewer might find it puzzling that the vocal categories of the twelve men reflect those in the "mixed choir" over at Mission Dolores: Sopranos and Altos next to Tenors, Baritones and Basses. Obviously, a great topic for Intermission: Nature vs. Nurture.

Noticing a large number of Gay men in our line, the attractive but nervous gentleman standing behind me (clearly, one of the "uninitiated" date/companions) asked if Chanticleer might sing "Chantilly Lace" and what did their name mean, anyway?

Never missing an opportunity, I stepped in a little closer and responded, "Chantilly Lace? As in - 'Makes me feel real loose like a long necked goose' - ? That one?"

"Oh, yeah!" he warmly replied, somewhat amused I would sharpen the finer points of his question.

"Can't say for sure," I said. And then, inching-in a little further, "But I do know that Chanticleer is the name of Chaucer's rooster - a proud and warbling coq."

Throughout the evening, the men of Chanticleer dazzled us with incomparable vocal flexibility and inimitable finesse. Without electronic gimmickry, the voices went sailing through the church's lofty architecture, rounding every pillar, hovering above the chilly air. No matter the text, whatever its seasonal associations - Chanticleer moves beyond the accretions of Religion and towards an unfettered Beauty. At times the collective sound was that of a standard 4-part men's group. During their several jaunts around the church, some listeners might have sworn a few pre-pubescent choir boys had suddenly sneaked in to jostle the tonality. For a stunning arrangement of The Magnificat, the Virgin Mary's poetic declaration of joyful submission (Luke 1:46-55), it was the climactic soprano of a jubilant male who took on her role, rousing our senses and tweaking every notion about the Natural Order and seemingly impossible. Chanticleer once again proved that an octave switcheroo can be a most potent tool.

Sunday night, down in the valley, the skies were clearer for the14th Annual Candlelight Christmas Concert presented by the Mission Dolores Basilica Choir. Under the direction of its handsome conductor, Jerome Lenk, the 30-member mixed choir covers a wide range of repertoire and, as with Chanticleer, tours and records. The choir's latest recording, available for the first time that night, features selections performed at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Adding to that an appearance at the Vatican, Mr. Lenk has coached a group of San Francisco neighbors toward a level of celebrity and international respect.

The mission of Chanticleer is to entertain by delivering world-class musical excellence, and to advocate better musical education. The responsibility of any church choir is to support and uplift the liturgical life of its faith-based community. Mission Dolores sits in one of the most culturally diverse areas of San Francisco, District 8, which includes The Castro. No doubt about it - the historical beginnings and present workings of this mission dedicated to Saint Francis are as complicated and challenging as The City's itself. Chanticleer is most certainly a jewel in our city's cultural crown, remaining high on the brow and bright on the scale. The Basilica Choir, on the other hand, is the voice of Fiesta - earthy and visceral, assertive and boisterous … and afterwards they piled their buffet tables with the best Christmas foods a neighborhood of this flavor could possibly offer. Like, really high!

Coming up on their Calendars -

With the First Centennial of the 1906 earthquake and fire in sight, Chanticleer returns to its roots in early music with the rarely-performed Renaissance marvel, Earthquake Mass, by Antoine Brumel (1460-1520). The Basilica Choir, again in marvelous contrast, will present their annual Spring Musical Cabaret. (Any chance of hearing, "Chantilly Lace" - ?)

As a native San Franciscan and selective film buff, I'm smiling at the irony of it all. In the popular Hollywood film about the 1906 tragedy, San Francisco, soprano Jeanette MacDonald (playing a wide-eyed preacher's daughter) introduces The City's beloved theme song in a rough 'n ready Barbary Coast cabaret known as "The Paradise". Later on, up at the camp sites in Alamo Square, in a torn sequined gown with an ostrich-plumed train, she bursts into "Nearer My God To Thee".

We'll see.




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