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Seasonal music fills church

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I have many fond memories of Christmas concerts in San Francisco by the male chorus Chanticleer, based in the Bay Area. The personnel have changed two or three times since then, but the tradition continues. The 12-man group came to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe on Dec. 7 for a concert of seasonal music, ranging from the Renaissance to contemporary times.

The evening began with a short address by Joseph Illick, director of the sponsoring Santa Fe Concert Association, extolling the joys of live singing (I couldn’t agree more!). Then the cathedral went black and after a few moments a voice, or rather a group of voices was heard, so impeccably synchronized that one could believe it was one voice. The high voices, then the low voices, then the middle voices each in turn proceeded up the center of the church singing several chants.

When assembled at the front, the group launched almost imperceptibly into Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater from the French Renaissance. The long luminous lines seemed to stretch into infinity. Just the beginning of an exquisitely sung recital.

This group of singers may be even better, more precise, more sonorous than I remember from past years. More than just an integral sense of ensemble, Chanticleer projects a radiant blend of voices most brilliantly capped off by its three sopranos and three altos. They extend the full range of a mixed-voice choir.

The second set included some of the most beautiful Christmas pieces from the late Renaissance — “Rorate caeli” by Handl (not Handel), the rhythmically buoyant “Angelus pastores ait” by Andrea Gabrieli (uncle of the more famous Giovanni), and from Spain, “Pastores dicite” by Christobal de Morales.

Until “Silent Night” was written in the 19th century, “In dulci jubilo” was the most famous of all Christmas melodies. It was said to have been composed by a mystic who woke in the middle of the night to find angels dancing and singing this melody to him. A good, though probably apocryphal, story. The group sang the melody in its traditional form.

The eastern European Orthodox tradition came represented by the Estonian mystic Arvo Pärt, and most impressively from a liturgical setting from Gretchaninoff, “Svete tihiy” (Gladsome Light) with its rich, luscious harmonies, forever taking unexpected turns.

“Ave Maria” by 20th-century composer Franz Biebl, which began the second half, has been a Chanticleer standard since the group’s beginning. The evening concluded in a set of familiar carols, some in rather schlocky arrangements. But one particular gem graced the set, a harmonization of the English folk melody, “The Town Lay Hushed,” by master Tudor composer Thomas Tallis.