While it is mere rumor that Meyerhoff Symphony Hall is named after his great-grandfather "Symphony," choral director Tom Hall could not have been more at home there last Tuesday evening.
Mr. Hall is known for his innovative programming, but this time he outdid himself. In a wonderfully audacious move, Mr. Hall pitted his home-team Baltimore Choral Arts Society against the world champion vocal ensemble Chanticleer in its premiere appearance in Baltimore. Such chutzpah is almost like the Orioles attempting a double steal against Toronto. But Tuesday, the only thing stolen was the show itself -- and it was stolen by nearly everyone who walked on stage.
All the wonders you've heard about Chanticleer are true -- and then some. This, the only full-time professional a cappella male vocal group, makes its home in San Francisco, and tours and records extensively. The range of Chanticleer's repertoire alone is astounding -- Renaissance to gospel to experimental new music, all performed with wit and energy. Their intonation is flawless, their vocal blend nothing short of amazing. Sometimes it is hard to believe that the sounds they produce come from 12 human voices. When conductor Joseph Jennings let loose with a plaintive countertenor solo in his own arrangement of the spiritual "Steal Away," my breath was taken away.
The Choral Arts Society did not suffer in comparison to this remarkable group. Long the most polished and exciting chorus in the area, the BCAS was as impressive on its own as with Chanticleer. The chorus's skill and ebullience were especially evident in the premiere of Peter Schickele's "Blake's Proverbs," commissioned for the group's 25th anniversary.
Yes, there is musical life after P.D.Q. Bach, although even Mr. Schickele's serious side can hardly be called stuffy. The opening line of the "Blake" text, "Energy is eternal delight," could stand as a motto for the entire work.
Ironically, the chorus itself is not the real showcase, but, rather the Modern-Jazz-Quartet-like background percussion, piano forehand and string base. The choral lines, though rhythmically compelling, paled in comparison to the wild machinations of the "accompaniment." Although they occasionally lagged behind the chorus, the seven instrumentalists generally realized their nTC demanding parts with brilliance. BSO bassist Elizabeth Ferrell deserves special praise for her wicked pizzicati, something not ordinarily required of an orchestral player.
Mr. Hall dubbed the second half "the battle of the bands," a "playoff" between BCAS and guest Chanticleer. But this was no ordinary battle: Everybody won.
Ellen Finkelstein is a flutist, music critic for the Daily Record and assistant state's attorney for Baltimore City.