Feature Interview

A Talk with Chanticleer - America's Premiere a Cappella Male Vocal Ensemble

February, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus


Chanticleer's track record is as unimpeachable as their pitch-perfect performances. Since their first concerts in 1978, they have traveled around the globe, performing everywhere from Huntsville to Tokyo, with recent stops at Vienna's Musikverein and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. They've released 29 recordings, including a DVD of their popular PBS Christmas special, earned four Grammy awards, and even made it onto the cover of Gramophone, the most widely circulated English language classical music magazine.

In the fall of 2005, shortly before Chanticleer was set to begin its annual Christmas tour, I spoke by phone with Assistant Music Director Matt Oldman and veteran bass Eric Alatorre. The men were buoyed by the news that their usual two performances at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sell out months in advance, had just been increased to four in hopes of accommodating everyone who wished to attend.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Eric Alatorre: This is my 16th season as bass with Chanticleer. Music Director Joe Jennings is our only member who has been here longer.

Matt Oldman: I sing tenor, and this is my 7th season.

Jason Victor Serinus: I met Louis before he even started Chanticleer, when he auditioned as a countertenor with the Port Costa Players.

The composition and balance of the group have changed a lot over the years. I've gone back to recordings done 10 or 15 years ago, and there were more lower voices, less higher voices. How has the sound changed as a result, and what motivated you to make the change?

Eric: It's kind of a tricky thing. If you look at it on paper, it may seem as though there were more low voices in the ensemble. It might have been skewed a little more toward the low end. But actually there were people singing parts higher than what they called themselves. Tenors were singing alto, altos were singing soprano, etc. So there has been a certain consistency that maintained itself over the years.

Most of the consistency has to do with Joe. He has been the common thread throughout 28 years of the Ensemble. He became our Music Director in 1983, and reshaped the sound. Even with the personnel changes and the re-voicing that happens occasionally, there's been a consistency to the sound.

Matt: Eric makes a good point. In my first year, there were two of us who called ourselves tenors who were singing alto. I don't think the voicing has changed that much. But people are much more comfortable calling themselves countertenors nowadays. There are more around. Tenors who might sing very high in the alto now call themselves countertenors. So while on paper it may look as though the balance has changed, in reality it hasn't changed that much.

Eric: I remember we once did a little experiment. We used to list ourselves individually and what voice types we were. Then we started listing ourselves by section.

When it was individual voice parts, reviews of our concerts and recordings often said how unbalanced we were because there were six countertenors vs. three tenors and three basses. The reviewers weren't really aware of how the countertenors actually split up. Once we listed our members by section, all of a sudden the reviews no longer mentioned that we were unbalanced. It was a bit curious, especially since nothing had actually changed with the ensemble.

JVS: We are infallible, you know.

Eric: [All laughing] We like to think so, but we know better.

JVS: Do you have a way of putting into words the sound you'd optimally like to achieve?

Matt: That's difficult. We want to achieve an appropriate and authentic sound. It's not one sound we're after, because we sing way too much repertoire and too diverse a repertoire to ever achieve one sound in particular. Sometimes we don't even want a blended sound; we may want one voice or section to predominate.

The sound we're going for is the sound that best suits the piece of music. We don't want to have one sound and then try to fit the music to it. We want to have the music first, and then sing in a manner that's appropriate for the music.

JVS: How long do you end up rehearsing before a concert?

Eric: It can really vary. It depends upon how long there is between concerts. The tour program we're doing now, Earthsongs, we've had a somewhat luxurious amount of time to bring in new singers, really live with the music for awhile, and let it mature in an organic manner. There have been other times when we're running around a lot and we literally have one week to whip up a program before we go onstage.

It depends on the type of music and the amount of time. Once we learn a program, it continues to evolve and develop. It's not like you put in X amount of time and it's done. Pieces really do have a life themselves and dictate over time how much time is necessary. This makes it a bit more organic and alive, which makes it definitely exciting for the audience, and hopefully something we also enjoy.

Matt: There are two aspects of rehearsing. One is to learn the music; the other is ensemble building. With each incarnation of Chanticleer, you have to have a big push in the beginning; then it constantly evolves of course. Once the ensemble sound is achieved, it's much easier to get pieces up and running, because you've learned to blend with your neighbor and across the sections. We don't have to reinvent the wheel every time.

JVS: How many new singers do you have this year?

Matt: Four.

JVS: Who auditions the singers and determines the sound? How many of you?

Matt: It happens in two rounds. The first round is a taped audition. Joe and I listen to all the tapes, and narrow it down to about a dozen people that we want to hear audition.

Then the entire ensemble takes part in the live audition. We in fact sing with them. We spend an entire day or two, sometimes plugging the amen we're auditioning in and out of the existing ensemble. That's the only way to tell if someone is going to work or not.

Some people can give a stellar solo audition, can read notes off the page of music, but when put alongside other people, stick out like a sore thumb. Other people can bomb their solo audition and can't read anything because their mind is racing 100 miles a minute, but, once they get in with a group of people, sing like they've always belonged with them. It really takes all 12 of us and Joe and even our office staff and Board – family you know – people who really know the ensemble well to make those decisions.

JVS: Eric, you've been here for 16 years, but others have lasted a much shorter time. Besides purely vocal considerations, what causes someone to move on? Is the touring difficult? Do they see this as just one phase of their singing trajectory?

Eric: All of the above. There are so many different reasons for coming to and leaving the ensemble.

It is a very difficult lifestyle, because the demands are incessant. In many ways it's very simple. You don't have to do the 9 to 5 at the office. But you're constantly on call for concerts, press events, fundraising, and educational outreach. It can be very disruptive if you want to be able to regularly come home to your honey and have a normal life. It's not that.

But it can be very rewarding. It depends on the person's temperament: how well they can cope with a perpetually peripatetic life, always being on the go. It can also depend on the relationships they have in their personal life: if they're married or partnered, can the person at home can take care of themselves or does the person on the road constantly feel pulled back to San Francisco. It also can depend on their professional outlook: would they like to do this for a long time, or is this a stepping stone to something else, or is this an opportunity to do what they've always wanted to do, and they'll see how long it fits into their life?

I think the people who stay longer realize it's something they really enjoy, it's a lifestyle they can live with, and it's something they're willing to invest into.

JVS: How many long-timers have been able to sustain a long-term relationship?

Matt: Over the history of Chanticleer, several.

Eric: Four of us are married to women. We've had up to eight people who were in long-term relationships in the ensemble at the same time.

JVS: People oftentimes assume you're a gay ensemble.

Eric: As we like to point out, we're not a gay organization, we're not a straight organization. We're a musical organization. Whatever the members are individually is pure circumstance.

Matt: An interview for one of the gay rags in Paris summed it up very well. They said, this is not a group that comes together based on sexual orientation. It's a group a group that comes together based on a belief in music and music making. And that's it, period.

Eric: I don't think Louis had creating a gay ensemble as a goal, and I don't think Chanticleer was ever all gay. I sang with one of the original members, Mark Daniels, who was decidedly heterosexual.

As for me personally, I'm straight and married.

Matt: I'm certainly not straight! [All laugh].

It's interesting. Not only does this question come up, but in lots of places we're asked if we're Christian or what are our ethnic backgrounds.

Right now we're all white, except Eric, who is a very vanilla Mexican. Some people wonder why we don't have more African-Americans or Asians, but those aren't audition criteria. The only thing you have to have is a solid technique, be very flexible in the styles in which you can sing, be a top-notch musician, and be a boy.

JVS: Could you be a transgender boy?

Matt: That situation has never come up. If it does, I'm sure it'll be fodder for lots of news articles.

JVS: I reviewed your new album as a spiritual coming out of sorts. You're known for performing a lot of Christian music, but here you get into New Age and Buddhist and a lot more. I just love the mix.

I'm discovering that a lot of groups are trying to break down barriers through music. Did such a desire or vision in any way guide your new CD, Sound in Spirit?

Matt: Yes. The conception developed out of the live concert by the same name, whose original impetus came from the idea of music and its healing capacities – how those two can work together. That's a very spiritual idea, the idea of a higher spirit and how music taps into it.

Yes, we're very familiar with European Christian music, which is one example of music tapping into a spiritual belief. It's not the only example, but it is one, which is why the Victoria and the other Christian piece are on the CD. They represent one incarnation of music reaching the Divine. But there are lots of other traditions that do the same thing.

The entire group is unified in the belief that music does exist on a higher plane. Even though we all don't necessarily have the same religious beliefs, we do share the belief that music is a spiritual gateway to that other place, that higher being, whatever you want to call it. The CD definitely allows for many many different religious beliefs as long as you believe in music and its transcendent power.

JVS: I love the CD. Do you ever have someone in the group who's an atheist? I'd think they'd have trouble with your repertoire.

Matt: That's not true at all. People have had all sorts of different beliefs: Jews, Wiccans, Pagans, Hedonists. But it's the belief in music. For some people, the belief in music itself is their religion. Maybe that's it. But it's something that's beyond everyday normal life.

JVS: Does Joe choose the repertoire and the programs?

Eric: Yes, he's the impetus behind all of this. He's the most inspired of all of us, especially when it comes to programming. He'll dream up wild ideas, ruminate on them for a while, and eventually come up with something. It sometimes takes us by surprise until we live with it for awhile, look at it, and realize it's what we want to do. It's pretty amazing.

JVS: What program has taken you by surprise?

Eric: Around ten years ago, I objected to one as the wrong vehicle for Chanticleer. Joe and Louis came up with the idea together: Britten's Curlew River.

JVS: Fabulous production.

Eric: It was a fabulous production. It was staged, theatrical, all of that. Some of us, myself included, didn't go into that whole opera realm because we liked ensemble music more. I never considered it one of my stronger suits, and wondered about the capabilities of Chanticleer.

I was assured to live with it and be patient. We worked really hard with the director, doing a lot of physical and theatrical stuff. But I still wasn't in a very good space about it for a long time.

Then, when I saw the production come together, I realized just how wrong I was. It really was transcendent and incredibly powerful. Especially when the people in the audience began to respond to what they had seen, I realized how inspired the production was. What a risk and great reward Joe had taken and received.

JVS: Remind me who sang the central characters.

The madwoman was the central character. Kevin Baum sang it both times we mounted the production. There were two other tenors who sang it in different years. If he was thin and very very blond, he was David Munderlow.

JVS: Whomever I saw do it was just extraordinary. I was riveted.

Have any other programs caused your eyebrows to go up to your hairline?

Matt: There have been pieces and things that have surprised me, especially the staged pieces. The Hildegaard project we just did was staged and included some spoken dialogue. It was a bit of a shock to take on, and took a lot of time to get there, but people seemed to really enjoy it.

Also, this new CD. The improvisation we created right there in the studio. And let's talk about the last gospel CD, where Joe decided on the last night that he was going to compose a piece right then and there which we were going to record at 4 in the morning. It's the last track, and it turned out to be one of the very best tracks on CD and one of my favorite things to listen to. There we were, wheeling out a piano and learning it on the spot. We do get taken by surprise a lot.

JVS: Let's talk about the Christmas program this year.

Matt: Our audience has come to expect a certain sort of Christmas program. We have no problem giving them what they want, because we enjoy the program as well. We'll be doing early music for the most part in the first half, and things that people might recognize, such as carols, in the second half.

Eric: As we like to say, it's the telling of the Christmas story through several hundred years of music.

JVS: Do you do candlelight processions in most of your concerts?

Eric: Yes. The Metropolitan Museum probably won't let us, because all those works of art are very flammable.

Matt: We usually use candles in churches, because they're used to lighting them anyway.

Eric: The church in Westport, CT where we'll perform is fairly intimate. It's pretty small and very charming inside.

Matt: Are you doing new pieces for Christmas?

Matt: Yes. There are some original compositions by contemporary composers, but we haven't received them yet. Eric Thiman and Anthony Hedges are the composers. We've never recorded their music before. They didn't write the pieces specifically for us; Joe found them. We are doing some of Joe's own arrangements: one of his Christmas gospel medleys and his arrangement of the Canadian Huron carol.

Eric: That's a lovely one.

Matt: As far as the Christmas concert is concerned, it's one of those things like falling in love. You don't know what it feels like until you've experienced it.

We've found that our Christmas concerts are sort of an indescribable experience, for both audience members and us. We love the Christmas concerts just as much as audience members do. You can't really explain why. There's something about the season, the music, the weather outside, about candlelight, about hearing a tune that you've known since you were a child, that makes the whole thing such a special experience.

We're also not a terribly austere group. We like talking to the audience and meeting them afterwards. The whole thing comes together such a wonderful experience both for us as performers and, as we hear from audience members, for them. It's a real highlight of their Christmas season. All you can do is encourage people to come and hope that they experience it as well and promise them that, if they do, they'll like it and they'll feel the same way. We invite people into this warm, Christmasy circle that we create.

JVS: Thank you. You've just said the word: warm. As I've been trying to remember how I've felt at your Christmas concerts, “warm” is exactly it. It was warm, it was loving. There was a glow around the group because of how you did the music and the energy you created. You could feel that glow collectively in the audience.

There are those rare artistic experiences in whatever medium where all of a sudden you feel close to the person across the room. I experienced that in that concert.

What would you want people who've never heard you before to know about Chanticleer? What's special about Chanticleer and distinguishes you from other a cappella male vocal ensembles?

Matt: It is a male ensemble, and we use the full range of the male voice. There are a lot of people who haven't heard countertenors before. The fact that we do have adult males singing the full choral range, from the lowest bass to the highest soprano, is surprising.

Oftentimes liken our sound to a family of instruments. You get a different sound if you have all of a family of viols as opposed to violins playing with clarinets and flutes. It is a unique sound, with more homogeneity to the sound than when you have men and women's voices mixed.

JVS: Are you still the only full-time male vocal ensemble in the U.S.A.?

Matt: You have to check Cantus' website to see what they say about themselves. [Note: Cantus all considers themselves full-time]. It also depends upon what you mean by full-time. If other groups call themselves full-time, we're probably the most full-time of the full-time. We literally have no time to do anything else, which is why some people leave the ensemble. No one has time for Sunday church gigs or teaching gigs.

If people have other aspirations than being members of Chanticleer, they can't develop them while they're members of Chanticleer, because Chanticleer takes up every waking moment of your life. In that respect, it's definitely unique. Other groups may enable you to eek out a living, but you often supplement your income from other work or gigs. We have no time to do that.

JVS: Have any singers left Chanticleer to develop professional solo careers?

Matt: There might be one soon. Matt Alber who left us recently is hoping to sign a solo record deal in the pop realm. Frank Albinder leads a notable early music ensemble in Washington, D.C. Several people have prestigious vocal and choral teaching positions at universities around the country.

We try very hard not to imitate styles. We try very hard to just do the style. There's a big difference between imitating a style and actually singing in the style. It's miles different in terms of work, and how you need to open yourself up. It's one thing to just ape something, but it's another thing entirely to take a tradition you didn't grow up in and make it part of your bones and part of your blood in a very short period of time.

JVS: Are you able to figure out in additions if a singer is versatile enough to go from American music to cowboy tunes?

Eric: All of us bring a different set of strengths and weaknesses to the ensemble when we join. We try to bolster up some of the weaknesses, but part of it is just learning on the job and growing and evolving and maturing musically as you're in the ensemble. There are other times when you have to lean on the strengths of others. Luckily, we come from such diverse backgrounds a lot of people have familiarity with almost every style we've come across. We can have those people take the lead and try to get us on the right path. If it's still a bit complicated, we can ask for outside help. But normally we do really well on our own.

I didn't grow up with a lot of spirituals and gospels in Southern California. But through the strengths of others, especially with Joe, I get closer to those styles than I would have on my own.

JVS: I ended up with a surprise interview with Dawn Upshaw yesterday.

She was delighted to be called the Meryl Streep of vocalism, because she stretches herself so much. You seem to be doing the same in the wide range of your programs.

Eric: That's probably why Dawn ended up recording a CD with us, Christmas with Chanticleer Featuring Dawn Upshaw.

JVS: What more would you like people to know about Chanticleer that we haven't already covered?

Matt: We're focusing a lot of attention on our educational outreach, and the impact we've found can have on future generations of choral singers and choral audience members. This spring we'll be doing a big high school music festival in New Canaan, CT. We're also doing them in Minneapolis, Fresno, San Francisco, and in Tokyo this year, besides doing a lot of individual master classes, visiting schools and having schools visit us.

We're very thrilled that we're at a point where we can devote time to paying back the musical community and do these educational activities to continue to develop the choral art in the younger generation.

JVS: What interesting programs are coming up in the spring?

Matt: In the Bay Area concert season, we have two interesting programs coming up in the string. One focuses on Antoine Brumel's Earthquake Mass. Brumel isn't that well known as a Baroque CD, but he's one of our “sleeper” favorites to whom we devoted an entire CD. We're singing his Earthquake Mass to mix the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake.

JVS: Are you going to record it?

Matt: We're like everyone else; the record company has just as much say as we do. We don't just decide to record something.

The other program is two masses by Victoria and Guerrero based on the Janequin programmatic madrigal, La Guerre. Victoria and Guerrero stole the musical ideas of La Guerre and incorporated them respectively into masses. It's very interesting. The madrigal has all of these nonsense syllables that imitate the sounds of war. It's interesting to hear it translated into a mass setting.

Eric: It's an example of how the profane gets transformed into the sacred.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

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