Christmastime may be peak season for Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based male chorus, but the group has enough musical panache to keep it busy throughout the year. A variant of the traditional chorus of men and boys, Chanticleer is all men, 12 strong, including a contingent of countertenors enabling it to sing so-called “mixed” choral repertoire. “She Said/He Said” was the theme of the chorus’s appearance here at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, as part of a major American tour.
The programme, which ran the chronological gamut from the Middle Ages to just last year, found several women composers represented, but they were in the distinct minority. The austere, chant-based “O frondens virga” by the 12th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen, which surprisingly blossomed into imitative texture at the end, stood out from the textbook counterpoint of a group of 16th-century Marian motets, though Tomás Luis de Victoria’s double-chorus “Regina caeli laetare” had an alluring richness. Here and elsewhere one enjoyed Chanticleer’s buoyant sound, which never borders on heaviness but rather encourages flexibility and nuance.
The “She Said/He Said” theme was borne out textually by Monteverdi’s madrigal “Oimè se tanto amate” in which two lovers variously sing “Oimè” (“Alas”) with exaggerated glissandos between syllables. But the fine composer Fanny Mendelssohn was represented by the lilting if forgettable “Schöne Fremde”, a piece meant for amateur choral groups, as were routine pieces by her well-known brother and by Brahms, although Brahms brought chromatic inflections to the word “seufzen” (“sighing”).
With so many short pieces, Ravel’s “Trois Chansons”, charmingly performed, was a high point, its witty, staccato outer songs neatly framing the gentle folk-like melody of “Trois beaux oiseaux du paradis”. In its 36-year existence Chanticleer has done more than its share to augment the choral repertoire with quality additions by commissioning a trove of new works. Stacy Garrop’s “Give Me Hunger” (2013), a setting of Carl Sandburg’s poem “At a Window”, effectively reflects the poem’s structure contrasting defiance (angry ostinato) and love (gentle, slightly dissonant lyricism).
The concert’s second half brought lighter fare – folksongs (the serene French “L’amour de moy”) and several spirituals, one of which enlisted the arresting soprano range of Cortez Mitchell. Chanticleer sings with zest, polish and unfailing good cheer, but perhaps because the programme flitted among so many musical styles it wasn’t one to tax the intellect.