Music for Democracy

By Murrey Nelson

The late 1970’s in San Francisco saw a flourishing of smaller performing arts groups, among them, Chanticleer. Founded in 1978 by Louis A. Botto, Chanticleer, was established to read the music of the Renaissance, just as the early music wave was sweeping over the Bay Area. Early choral music was always sung by men, thus Chanticleer is comprised of twelve male voices, six of them counter-tenors, which is one of the distinguishing features of the group.

As Chanticleer gained local recognition, they were encouraged to go on the road, which led to them developing repertoire beyond early music, such as jazz gospel. The early 1980’s saw the group really come into its own, establishing its own recording label and going fully professional. For the last twenty years Chanticleer has been a full-time employer of its musicians, allowing them to focus on their singing. Chanticleer has won two Grammys and was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

I recently sat down with Christine Bullen, Executive Director of Chanticleer, to learn more about them. A Chanticleer Christmas, is the centerpiece of their performance schedule. This year’s show, which opens on December 10th, will feature music of the Spanish Renaissance, older English carols, and a gospel medley.

Image by Lisa Kohler, Courtesy Chanticleer

Following their Christmas shows here in the Bay Area, they will be touring some of the major halls in Europe, then heading back home to test new music for their next tour, and collaborate with Brent Michael David on his score for DW Griffith’s silent film “Leatherstocking.” In June, they will reprise their popular Mission Road tour, performing in six missions between San Francisco and Santa Barbara. The group does some 100 performances a year, approximately 50 of which are in the U.S.

Chanticleer has been based in Hayes Valley for the last 4 ½ years, at 44 Page Street. The location gives them the advantage of office and rehearsal space in the same building, a luxury for any performance group. Their Bay Area performances are in churches and cathedrals, as well as in non-religious performance spaces. Bullen acknowledged that some audiences just don’t feel comfortable in a house of worship.

In 1986, Chanticleer launched an education program, taking their singing into the public schools. They now employ a full-time education director, who used to be in the ensemble. Chanticleer recently constructed a Bay Area mixed Youth Chorus – singers aged 14-20 to promote high-level, small ensemble training for the area’s top young singers and to provide community service through free performances. They view their educational work as building social capital, because choral music is highly democratic. Choral music has the biggest grass roots base of any art form, and a recent impact study showed that choral singers have the highest level of civic engagement of any other performing artists: they vote, volunteer, and contribute philanthropically to their communities. Today’s world needs more choral singers.

For tickets and program schedules: