There are certain traditions in our area that bring the holidays to life — the Bull Run Festival of Lights, Christmas at Mount Vernon — and of course, it wouldn’t seem like the season without the sounds of the Grammy Award-winning Chanticleer performing its majestic Christmas concert at George Mason University.
Chanticleer is a male a cappella ensemble known around the world as “an orchestra of voices,” which takes its name from the singing rooster in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” The ensemble is famous for singing ancient hymns, venerated sacred works, traditional European and American carols and holiday favorites.
“This is our 35th season and people expect a certain mixture of music from us at Christmas time and we always try to give them what they want but also keep it fresh,” said interim music director Curt Hancock. “We always begin with Gregorian chants, and this year we are starting with three small groupings and they will interweave three different chant melodies in their own way.”
“A Chanticleer Christmas” arrives at GMU’s Center for the Arts at 8 p.m. Saturday and the 12-man ensemble will remain in the area the following day, with a 4 p.m. performance to the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas on Sunday.
“These are our first two concerts of a lengthy Christmas run and it’s been a tradition for us to start at George Mason and we are looking forward to being there,” Hancock said. “The program for each concert will feature music spanning centuries and genres by such celebrated composers as Gabrieli, Praetorius, Poulenc, Handl and Tallis.”
The second half of the concert will open with one of Chanticleer’s most beloved pieces, Franz Biebl’s version of the “Ave Maria.”
“This is sort of our anthem at this time of year,” Hancock said. “We will do a pretty lengthy stretch of Renaissance motets. This is what Chanticleer was founded to explore. We will begin with a French piece, which follows the first few moments of Christ’s life as he is nursed by Mary. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music.”
Other music comes from Germany, Italy and Spain, telling tales of the shepherds, angels and God.
In addition to the Christmas music, Chanticleer will perform a collection of Renaissance music, jazz, gospel and contemporary music.
“These are very old tales from the 13th and 14th century paired with more modern works,” Hancock said. “There will also be several pieces from Eastern Europe and Russia.”
Prior to both concerts, the group will hold a pre-performance discussion free to ticketholders, which will begin 45 minutes prior to the performance.
“We will let people know what to expect, but also talk about the overall theme and the honor of the program,” Hancock said. “We’ll explain how we began, talk about our history and basically explain the Chanticleer story.”
Currently, Chanticleer is comprised of Casey Breves, Gregory Peebles, Kory Reid, Cortez Mitchell, Alan Reinhardt, Adam Ward, Michael Bresnahan, Brian Hinman, Ben Jones, Eric Alatorre, Michael Axtell and Matthew Knickman.
In its 35 years, Chanticleer has released numerous recordings of its work, including two Grammy Award-winning albums, “Colors of Love” and “Lamentations and Praises.” The group has also recorded several best-selling Christmas albums, including “Sing We Christmas,” “Our Heart’s Joy” and “Our Favorite Carols.”
Hancock would love to see families come out to see the performances, as he believes it’s a great learning experience for the kids.
“I think it’s great for parents who are really interested in classical music to bring their kids to an event like this,” he said. “We do some very heavy things to make you think and everyone in the audience will leave singing.”