Struggling to get into the holiday spirit this year? Chanticleer – AKA “an orchestra of voices” – will fix that. The talented twelve man multi-Grammy award-winning ensemble is performing at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) on Saturday, December 2.
We recently caught up with Music Director William Fred Scott about Chanticleer’s 40th anniversary, the sacred Christmas show, and more.
How long have you served as Music Director?
WFS: This is my third, maybe my fourth year. I started working with them, actually, in the 90s when they were singing music with orchestras in a few places around the country. They were making an album of Mexican barouche music. So I conducted them with the Atlanta Symphony because I was the Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony at the time. So I’ve actually been working with them for 25 years, but as the Music Director this is my third Christmas.
Did you ever think that you would take over as Music Director?
WFS: No, no, not at all. My whole professional life really started as an opera conductor. I worked for the Opera Company of Boston and then Robert Shaw invited me to be the Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, so I switched my opera hat for my symphony hat for a while and then I got invited by the Atlanta Opera to take that company over and I ran it for 20 and then I kept thinking I would retire and then a couple of educational institutions in Georgia asked me to teach. So I taught at a girls’ college in north Georgia and then I was Director of Choral Music at the Westminster School in Atlanta, which is a private school. Chanticleer had been trying to get its claws into me for about six years because they were looking for a new music director and they seemed to like the combination of symphony, theater, and choral that I had to offer. After five years teaching high school, they won, and I started working in San Francisco. I’ve always loved Chanticleer. I like the music they sing, I like the way that they sing, but it never occurred to me that I would actually be their music director and it’s been a great joy.
Chanticleer is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. What do you attribute to the group’s long lasting success, which includes multiple Grammys and over a million albums sold?
WFS: I think there are a number of reasons. The one that you hope is the obvious one is that they take good music and they sing it really, really well. You hope that that’s always the case. I think that there are a few other things that make it a special institution and probably have contributed to its longevity.
The first one is that it is and always has been just male singers – that puts them in the category of being almost the only singing ensemble in the world that is a fulltime professional ensemble of male singers – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. It was designed to sing renaissance music 40 years ago in that all male tradition, so it’s not like the Anglican men and boys groups tradition, it’s not like a Mozart opera tradition of men and women.
So having men sing all the parts, from the highest to the lowest, makes it almost literally unique in the world. That has created what you might call reason number two. It has created the Chanticleer brand and sound. We are not a group that tries to cross and the t’s and dot all the I’s of early music research and musicology, nor are we a group that tries to be like your college acapella group with your beat box and stuff like that. We make a sound that we think is colorful, somewhere along the way we got this nickname of “an orchestra of voices” so we try to adapt our color to whatever the music requires and I like to say it’s more important to sing with style than to have just a style. I think we’ve always had a Chanticleer sound that is sweet and pretty in the top voices, but very manly and almost glee clubish when it needs to be in the lower voices. I think that’s part of the reason it’s stayed so successful.
One other thing is probably the repertoire because we’ve branched out from early music early on in our career and we have quite a huge commissioning project, which means we have also created an enormous choral library over the past 40 years. That library is made up of a number of contemporary pieces that we have actually created. So we have enriched the libraries of choruses all over the world with new American music, new Finnish music, new Chinese music. We’ve sort of been on the cutting edge of creating new choral music for a very long time. I think it’s kind of fascinating and the people that hire us do too – that we can do everything from Gregorian chant to the latest classical composition, and in that mix we throw in our pop standards that we have done. We have some wonderful Gershwin and Cole Porter arrangements. We even have arrangements by Vince Peterson, who lives in Manhattan, Freddie Mercury. We really have a wide repertoire. There’s always been something for everyone. And, ultimately, it comes back to singing good music as well as you can. I think it’s all those other things too. We are kind of the strange purple cow of an all-male group, we’ve never had – except for the rare occasion when we appear with an orchestra – we’ve never had a conductor that’s visible. That’s what makes us special, I think, and we keep building on that special brand and try to sing as beautifully as we can.
What goes into curating your Christmas show?
WFS: The Christmas show, in a way, is an easy one to put together because obviously the narrative line doesn’t change. You’re always going to have music that’s about angels and Wise Men and shepherds, and baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. So, the question is, where do you focus your spotlight? And every year, the groupings of the songs that we sing changes a little bit, although it’s always going to have that standard, narrative pattern. I think every concert that we give, whether it’s Christmas or any kind of international thematic concert, every concert needs to have something that challenges the singers and something that challenges the audiences. That needs to be balanced with things that really are familiar or sound familiar. I know it’s kind of a strange word to use sometimes, in some scholarly circles, but it needs to be accessible. The audience doesn’t need to be shown that we can sing really, really hard music. They need to go away thinking that was an experience that somehow touched me. I think music does that, I think passion does that. I think the quality of the selection needs to appeal to the person that loves renaissance music, the person who loves pop music, the person who loves contemporary, sort of off the wall music, and at any given concert – unless there’s one particular theme, say music from the California Missions, which is obviously of a very specific time and place – the programs need to have something that brings everybody in. Our Christmas programs, I will tell you, are quite sacred and always have been. The selections always revolve around the manger and the Holy Family and the Wise Men and the shepherds. That’s not to say there aren’t some well-known carols – like Good King Wenceslas, which is not about Christmas. It’s a popular “so-called” Christmas carol. There are some familiar things that are a little lighter in their content and scope. It’s a program that is designed to celebrate Christmas, so it’s not what you call a “holiday program.” We don’t sing Silver Bells and we don’t sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. We don’t even sing The Twelve Days of Christmas.
I was looking at photos of Chanticleer earlier and some members look rather young. What’s the age range?
WFS: The youngest singer we have is maybe 23 or 24 and the oldest singer we have is our lowest bass who is celebrating his 27th year with Chanticleer. So he’s clearly been singing in Chanticleer since before some of these guys were born. As a matter of fact, he’s retiring this year, this season, which ends in the summer of 2018 – it will be Eric’s last. In a way it’s kind of a young man’s game because you have to be in good voice all the time. There is no sub lift. So you have to be in good mental any physical and emotional and certainly vocal shape.
Having the veterans in the group must provide an incredible mentorship opportunity for the newer members.
WFS: Absolutely because it is such a demanding vocal work and because there is so much music that gets sung in the course of a year. We have four big programs a year, obviously one is Christmas. If you think about it, that could be 100 different pieces a year. The ones that have been in the group a longer time are able to help the younger ones understand sort of what our style is, what our rehearsal style is, what is required of them when they are on the road and the technical, nitty gritty of it. There are a lot of towns where we’ve been a number of times and it’s really fun for some of the young ones to tag along when some of the older ones say, “There’s a restaurant in Chicago we have to go to when we get to town.” Or when we go to Kraków, Poland, we know exactly which little sausage vendor in the center of town we’re going to go to for lunch. That’s fun to pick up on those Chanticleer memories that have been made over the years.
The group has been called “the world’s reigning male chorus.” With 12 members, how does Chanticleer find that seamless blend that’s earned them the title of “an orchestra of voices”?
WFS: I’d like to say that’s my doing. It’s certainly my responsibility. That’s what we rehearse to achieve. We rehearse with the same discipline that any chorus of any size would have. After all, the buck has to stop somewhere and it stops with the music director so there are a number of things about dynamics and phrasing and pronunciation and articulation that one person needs to decide. Otherwise, you would spend all of your time in some sort of rehearsal chaos. So there’s that and we listen to each other, talk to each other. They are constantly tuning themselves to make sure that they’re singing in tune and that the blend is just right. There are some pieces where you want the twelve men to sound like one and there are some pieces where you want twelve men to sound like twelve. It’s just a question of listening very carefully to each other and I’m with them for all of the rehearsal period and a good portion of the touring, so that means that we’re always fine-tuning. And that’s the only way you get it – a lot of rehearsal with very dedicated men.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
WFS: We’re very excited to come out to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Everybody’s really looking forward to it.
Tickets to Chanticleer at WHBPAC start at $50 and the concert begins at 8 p.m.
Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. For more information, call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.