Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Christmastime is here

It’s funny how when you head back to work after a long holiday weekend, your bloggable stories dry up … along with your bloggable free time.

But! I did manage to kick off the holiday season on Monday night with my annual pilgrimage to hear Chanticleer sing in Chicago’s gothically fabulous Fourth Presbyterian Church.

Chanticleer—for those of you who are not shameless groupies who have seen them in concert at least 10 times like some people we won’t mention here—is a 12-voice a cappella men’s ensemble that is so awesome if they offered me a job I’d be all outta my way, bitches as I abandoned my current life and rushed the stage to sing with them. The group’s vast repertoire covers everything from early music (the stuff most people lump under the term Gregorian chant) to formal concert literature to modern jazz. And they are quite possibly the most pure, disciplined, beautiful singers you will ever hear.

Chanticleer's annual Christmas concert works through the history of vocal music chronologically, and it's really the only way to put me in the Christmas spirit. After my A Charlie Brown Christmas CD, of course. This year's concert started with 15th century three-part contrapuntal plainsong chants, stopped along the way to pay tribute to the German master composer Michael Praetorius and to explore a study in Russian dissonance, and then ended as always with a medley of Christmas spirituals.

Now, I'm what most people would describe as an atheist. I find atheism to almost be a religion unto itself, though—and not being a fan of any religion, I just tend to think of myself as extremely non-religious. So there is much irony in the fact that I loathe secular Christmas music while I love the sacred stuff ... at least the sacred stuff that would never be recorded by Amy Grant or anyone who has to look up the definition of antiphonal.

And one of my favorite antiphonal sacred choral pieces is Franz Biebl's transcendent Ave Maria. I've sung it a number of times in huge choruses, where I get to wallow in its lush chording and muscular 20th century dissonances. Chanticleer, being only 12 voices, reduces the piece to its bare harmonic essence ... and still sends tears down my cheeks when they sing it for me.

But! They also sang an Ave Maria on Monday night that puts the Biebl in a tight race for the #1 spot in my heart. This one, written by French Renaissance composer Josquin Desprez at the very dawn of the 16th century, is infused with clear, pure harmonies and simple, haunting melodies layered into a gauzy musical tapestry. And as it floated through Fourth Presbyterian's mighty stone sanctuary on Monday night, it stirred me in ways that some people might describe as ... religious.

By my count, this was at least my tenth Chanticleer concert. And at least my tenth Chanticleer closing gospel medley, which is sung in arrangements that rely heavily on the ensemble's male sopranos. While I don't hate gospel music, I don't love it either. And with all those male sopranos wailing on and on about What a Pretty Little Baby and Jerusalem in the Morning, the medley is quite literally the point where the mighty men of Chanticleer devolve into a chorus of screaming queens.

I went with my folks and my friends Matthew and Craig on Monday. Craig is Jewish (An atheist and a Jew walk into a Christmas concert ...) and while he loved the performance, he was thrilled to find a new personal Christmas theme song in the medley: Everywhere I Go, Somebody Talkin' 'Bout Jesus.

And if a borderline atheist and a Jew can find meaning in a sacred Christmas concert, then we should all kick everyone in the balls who tries to whine to the world about the supposed "war on Christmas" that the far right has trotted out in the media yet again this year. Especially if they use male sopranos like Bill O'Reilly to do their whining.

I got a comment from an honest-to-goodness member of Chanticleer! I feel kind of woozy. And fizzy. And funny. And fine. And a little disappointed that the comment didn't include an invitation to come sing the Biebl Ave Maria with them. Even though I know both bass part by heart. And I can totally sing words like tecum and muleribus without giggling inappropriately.

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