One Man Down

The all-male, a cappella vocal ensemble Clerestory was one man down for last Saturday’s concert in Berkeley. The ensemble usually has nine members. That night, thanks to some last-minute redistribution of parts and the wise decision to move one piece forward in the program and cut another entirely, the men of Clerestory acquitted themselves exceedingly well with eight. (Countertenor Jesse Antin, a key member of the group, had suffered a family bereavement and had to leave town at short notice.)

Regardless of this fact, the event was to my mind a model of what a great choral concert should be. Here’s why:

1. Many choruses, even good ones, outstay their welcome, thinking that audiences are desperate to sit through an entire mass and about 20 other pieces. But Clerestory’s concert, which featured a selection of mini song cycles and short individual songs organized around a single theme, was just the right length.

2. There was a little bit of casual talk from the stage in between a few of the songs. The choir members spoke to us comfortably like we were friends. They didn’t ramble, over-articulate as if speaking to a group of toddlers of the hard of hearing (which is so often the case in choral concerts) or preach to us. The information they imparted was helpful and concise.

3. The theme for the concert, “Night Draws Near” (also the title of the group’s new CD) tackled the popular Halloween-time subject of death, decay, the cycles of nature and related ideas, in a fresh way. The music veered between a short movement from a Medieval Requiem Mass by Claudin de Sermisy and “Three Short Elegies” by the 20th century composer Gerald Finzi to the contemporary Finnish composer Jaako Mantyjarvi’s ghoulish setting of “Double, Double Toil and Trouble” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and an electrifying battle song, “War Music: On Horseback,” by the contemporary Bay Area-based, British composer Paul Crabtree. In other words, the ensemble’s broad approach to programming had a cumulative effect on the listener: The singers tackled their chosen theme with breadth so I never got bored. On the other hand, the choice or repertoire was so inspired and the singing so beautiful, that I felt the kind of depth of connection with the music and people in the room that I more often feel when a concert is more narrow and focused in scope.

4. The intonation was perfect and full of emotion yet restrained when it needed to be. The sound was gorgeously balanced and the singers evoked a wide variety of moods.

If there’s anything that didn’t work quite right in the program, it was the contemporary composer John Musto’s “Nunc Dimitis/The Birds Have Vanished”. The decision to move this languorous, knotty, and sustained piece from the finale position forwards in the second half was a good one: The singers didn’t want to leave it to last because of the difficulty of singing it without their ninth member on stage. And their lack of confidence in being short of one vocalist showed in the slightly hesitant nature of their performance.

But even with Antin on stage, I don’t think that Musto’s work would make for a good finale. I’m guessing that the group put it there because they wanted a quiet and thoughtful ending to the program. When I listened to a recording of the track on the group’s new CD the following day, the composition struck me as being a bit half-hearted. It’s an after-thought rather than a memorable expression of closure. I wonder if the Clerestory clan might consider positioning the song earlier in the program for its concert in Sonoma this coming weekend? Whether one man down or not, the robust yet stern sound of the shape note tune “New Morning Sun” by S. Whit Denson, creates a potent and less clichedly elegiac ending.

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