Heralded by “The New Yorker” magazine as “the world’s reigning male chorus” and named 2008’s Ensemble of the Year by Musical America, all-male vocal group Chanticleer kicks off its Christmas tour at the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Saturday night.
“It’s sort of a tradition to do the very first Christmas concert at George Mason,” said Jace Wittig, interim music director for Chanticleer. “Our Christmas concerts are probably one of our most prized traditions.”
As it always does for the Christmas concerts, Wittig said the ensemble will begin the show with a Gregorian chant before moving further back in time to sing carols from 13th century Italy, and then return to the Renaissance period. The second half of the concert will feature an audience favorite — and Chanticleer “anthem” — Franz Biebl’s version of “Ave Maria.” The show will close with familiar carols and gospel melodies.
“We take a journey though musical history,” Wittig said. “The repertoire is quite broad. The breadth that is represented in the Christmas concert is representative of our repertoire as a whole ... When we take a program on tour ... it is kind of this eclectic programming and the journey through all the sounds that people have put into vocal music throughout the years.”
San Francisco-based Chanticleer was founded in 1978 by tenor Luis Botto. Though the ensemble originally intended to sing only music from the Renaissance period, Wittig said the repertoire quickly expanded and now, “at the core of it’s mission, Chanticleer explores any music at the highest level ...“
Like the Chanticleer founders at the time of the group’s conception, Chanticleer’s current members are mainly in their 20s and 30s and in touch with contemporary music. This has never been more evident than with the release of the ensemble’s latest studio album, “Someone New,” available for digital download since October and in stores since the end of November.
“We have been including more popular arrangements; indie pop, and audiences have responded very well to it,” Wittig said. “We thought, we need to make an album of this.”
“Someone New” includes contemporary tunes from Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, selections from the musical “The Wiz” and even alternative rocker Gotye.
Wittig said the ensemble is often asked how they approach the varying styles of music they sing.
“The easiest answer is ‘the same way,’” Wittig said. “You find the beauty in music ... and if the music is good and the words are good, there are a wellspring of ideas for us to draw on.”
Wittig, an Indiana native, grew up dreaming of becoming a member of Chanticleer, or a group just like it. His introduction to Chanticleer came during his time as a member of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. A Chanticleer singer appeared as a soloist on one of the choir’s albums and Wittig got the opportunity to hear a Chanticleer recording.
“I remember thinking very specifically it was the most glorious thing I ever heard,” Wittig said. “I followed them through the years and was a fan myself. And at some point, my friends were like, ‘why don’t you audition?’”
Wittig started with Chanticleer eight years ago as a baritone. Like all members of the group, he has a degree in music- vocal performance specifically — from Ball State University.
“This is our full-time job,” Wittig said. “Both for our singers and our staff of seven.”
And the Chanticleer schedule is a grueling one.
“We do 100 to 120 concerts per year all over the world ...” Wittig said. “Our touring calendar adds up to about six or seven months on the road. We rehearse four hours a day, five days a week.”
But if their regular schedule sounds brutal, it’s nothing compared to the holiday season.
“On average we do four or five concerts per week, but around Christmas, it’s much more,” Wittig said. “Christmas is a special time; it’s sort of our bread and butter.”
Though both the Christmas show and their regular repertoire showcase Chanticleer’s broad palette, when it comes down to it, Wittig said the group is still very much dedicated to its Renaissance roots.
“We are one of the few groups who manage to fit all of this [music] into one program,” Wittig said. “ ... But Renaissance music in particular ... it’s the cornerstone of what we do.”