Twelve men take the stage in white ties and tails, relaxed, confident. They acknowledge the audience graciously, but briefly; the music they make requires total focus.
There are two basses, one baritone, three tenors and six countertenors, mingling their voices in a rich, intricately blended sound, their diction — in medieval Latin, Renaissance French, Swedish and English — as clear as a bell, their pitch so solid you could walk on it. Their sense of ensemble brings to mind the precision and cohesion of such legendary instrumental groups as the Budapest String Quartet and the Beaux Arts Trio. The earliest music they sing dates from the 16th century, and the most recent was composed last year, and at the end of each number, you feel stunned by the power of their communicativeness.
This is Chanticleer, the renowned choral ensemble from San Francisco, established in 1978, whose concert of love songs Tuesday night was part of the Kennedy Center’s Jukebox series.
Pieces by Vivanco and Guerrero filled the Eisenhower Theater with antiphonal effects first heard in the cathedrals of Avila and Seville. Settings of Ronsard by de Monte and Bertrand exuded subtle sophistication, and I know of no other ensemble I would rather hear sing Palestrina.
More recent works included irresistible arrangements of Stephen Foster by two superb composers, John Musto and the late Gene Puerling. There also was a premiere by Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer in residence and mastermind of the KC Jukebox series, called “Drum-Taps,” a setting of poetry by Walt Whitman; even an abundance of obvious musical allusions couldn’t diminish the impact of Whitman’s moving text. Far more harmonically complex were the “Love Songs” by the always interesting Augusta Read Thomas. And the timeless quality of open intervals made another recent commission, Jaakko Mantyjarvi’s “Hommage à Edith,” the most memorable of the evening.
Resisters, had there been any, would have been won over with the wit and sincerity of Coward’s “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” arranged by Chanticleer’s Adam Ward, or the Gershwins’ “Love Walked In.”