No friars, yet Chanticleer knows its mission

Times Music Critic

SAN LUIS OBISPO -- On a balmy evening here Thursday, the dozen men of Chanticleer, dressed in identical stylish dark suits, began a slow procession down the aisle of the San Luis Obispo de Tolosa mission, founded in 1772. It was a solemn, beautiful, memorable moment. They were unfurling, for the first time, some of our musical DNA.

Harmonically rich, historically hard to pinpoint, the night's music was first heard coming from outside. Then, as the men walked down the aisle, a listener's ears picked up solo voices, many of them in the high soprano and alto range of women, arriving and receding. The men sang with a restrained fervor, as performers of early music are supposed to do in a sacred space. They sounded angelic but not entirely comfortable, as if they were fighting to restrain their inner Al Jolsons.

The composer of the processional is uncredited, but the manuscript, recently discovered, is in the hand of Juan Bautista Sancho, who was born the year the San Luis Obispo mission was founded. The Spanish Franciscan came to California in 1804 and settled at the Mission San Antonio de Padua, near King City. For the next 25 years, he directed what is said to have been an accomplished chorus and orchestra.

Thursday's concert was the beginning of Chanticleer's "The Mission Road," a series of concerts along the Camino Real of music that the friars would have performed two centuries ago in their missions. The centerpiece of the program is "Misa en Sol," which was probably written by Sancho. Between the Mass movements, Chanticleer inserted several works by Manuel de Sumaya, an 18th century Mexican composer who combined the Italian Baroque style with his native folk tradition.

In fascinating program notes, Craig Russell -- a guitarist and musicologist who prepared the performing editions for the concert -- describes extraordinary musical traditions in the missions that might have paved the way for what came to be known in the 20th century as the California School. Such mavericks as Henry Cowell, Harry Partch and Lou Harrison knew nothing of this music. But, we now see, there was something in the air.

Russell refers to mission music as a form of musica moderna, which is to say that practically anything goes. The missions' liturgical traditions incorporated the practices of centuries. Sancho, like his colleagues, also got periodic reports from Europe on what the Viennese were up to.

Folk instruments were combined with traditional ones. The ensemble joining Chanticleer included two violins, cello, two guitars and harp. Tapping on the wood of the guitar and harp was something that the friars liked to do, just as Cowell and John Cage after him did.

Mexican Baroque is a hot topic in early music circles, and Chanticleer has done pioneering work. But much of that music sounds continental. In comparison, mission music feels downright radical and pure California -- learned but fresh.

Points of reference kept changing through the concert. A certain modern California sensibility may have had something to do with that, just as with the new flowery decorations in the mission. With half of its members countertenors, Chanticleer, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary with this tour, has a distinct sound.

The group moves confidently between high-end early music, new music and breezy pop and holiday fare. I don't think a bit more breeze blowing in the mission would have hurt. Chanticleer took itself very seriously, as the men formally regrouped for each piece. But they sang superbly. Solo opportunities abounded, and everyone beamed in the limelight.

The ensemble always values expressivity, whether in an undecorated chant or florid embellishments. This is more California-here-I-come than severe Old World performance practice, and not all scholars are likely to approve. But I found this concert a revelation of the West Coast spirit. A recording and DVD will follow in August.


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