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Twelve Voices. One Clear Sound.

The virtuosity of Chanticleer returns to Richmond.


It's a sophisticated attire that reflects the impressive sound created by the 12-member, male a cappella group now in its 27th season. Named after the clear-singing rooster in Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," the group not only has a lucid, ringing sound, but also has programs that span 10 centuries of music. In one concert, members can be heard performing with ease and authenticity everything from Renaissance music to gospel "The nicest thing about being a singer in Chanticleer is that you grow and expand as a musician," Oltman says. "Everyone's open and versatile to trying new styles of music."

A testament to these singers' versatility is their newest CD, "How Sweet the Sound," which came out Sept. 14. The album is a tribute to gospel music, and the group's African-American music director Joseph Jennings taught each part of every song to the group from his memory. "It's challenging for us to learn that way. We're trained to read music. It's a problem of classical training," Oltman says. "But gospel is an oral tradition. So to learn it right, we learn it by ear."

Although most of the group's members are classically trained, diverse experiences are something the group looks for when auditioning new members. "If someone's been a jazz pianist or has lived in China and speaks Chinese, that's an asset to the group," Oltman says. The ensemble receives hundreds of audition tapes but selects only 12 people to audition live. The audition is like a two-day camp, where all of those who audition sing two songs in front of everyone and also do sight-singing exercises and vocal exercises. On the second day, they sing with Chanticleer, where their blend is almost as important as their personality. "We can't be completely objective," says Oltman. "We're going to have to like them too."

Chanticleer is the only full-time classical vocal ensemble in the United States and was founded in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto, who wanted to have a group with which to sing the neglected music of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Twenty-six years later the members of the group have not only expanded their wide-ranging repertoire, but they feel like a second family. "It's like having eleven brothers," says Oltman. When they're not on the road touring, they're rehearsing four hours a day Monday through Friday in their home base, San Francisco.

Christmas is the busiest season for this "orchestra of voices." This year, they're performing 22 concerts between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. As is traditional for their Christmas concert, they'll be performing "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebel. "I've probably sung it 5,000 times in my life, but I still love it," Oltman says. They will also be singing Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to the Virgin" and many other Christmas favorites. The Christmas program has become a holiday tradition not only in concerts but in recordings and public television broadcasts. A critic for The New Yorker observed, "No one does a better choral Christmas than the virtuoso male voices of Chanticleer." And Chanticleer has proved this to be true with or without the luggage. S

Chanticleer performs its Christmas Concert in Richmond Thursday, Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m., at the Modlin Center for the Arts. Tickets cost $15-$30. Call 289-8980.

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