“We Never Underestimate Our Audience” Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 28 February 2006 18:00
For Matt Oltman, the news that Chanticleer was auditioning singers didn’t sound real. A friend told him about the opportunity when he was a master’s student in England, he said, and his reaction was disbelief. “The Chicago Cubs are having open tryouts,” he said by way of comparison. “Come try out.”

The Des Moines native did indeed try out, but there were no openings that year for tenors. He auditioned again the next year, and was accepted, and this season marks his seventh with the 12-member men’s chorus. He currently serves as the group’s assistant music director.

Oltman’s initial reaction to Chanticleer auditions is not surprising. For one thing, the vocal ensemble is held in incredibly high esteem. Its Web site (http://www.chanticleer.org) includes raves from coast to coast, but most compelling is this from the Los Angeles Times: “Chanticleer fascinates and enthralls for much the same reason a fine chocolate or a Rolls Royce does: through luxurious perfection.”

For another thing, Chanticleer surely represents a pinnacle for classical singers, as the only full-time classical vocal ensemble in the United States. When a singer becomes part of Chanticleer, the days of endless auditions and odd jobs end.

The San Francisco-based, Grammy-winning group will be performing a free concert on March 13 at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Muscatine. Although Chanticleer was originally established (in 1978) to perform music from the Renaissance, its repertoire has expanded to include gospel, jazz, and world music, along with contemporary classical compositions. From its inception, one goal of Chanticleer has been to give voice to works that audiences seldom hear, and that now includes everything from forgotten “early” music to new works the ensemble has commissioned.

That expansive mission is reflected in the group’s EarthSongs program, which it will perform in Muscatine. The program covers a span of more than 400 years, starting in the 16th Century.

The 31-year-old Oltman said in an interview last week that the program is not what audiences might expect in terms of tone; it is not simply a celebration of the Earth, but instead reflects our complicated relationship with the planet.

“What I like about this program is that ... especially in the first half there’s a bit of a journey,” he said, starting from a joyful place and then moving toward alienation: “I have become lost to the world and reject it.”

And while audiences might anticipate soothing, grounded songs, Oltman said the program is challenging and innovative, particularly the works of Chinese composer Chen Yi. “They’re so whimsical and they’re so true to her homeland, and yet very challenging,” he said. “The majority of the audience will have never heard anything like some of Chen Yi’s music coming out of human bodies. People seem to like to be stretched in that way.”

Chanticleer understands that even the challenging music of a live program has to be digestible and comprehensible on first listen, he added, and the trick is to find a balance. A piece, he said, can be “wholly foreign to an audience and yet [must] somehow not turn them off ... really draw them in.” The challenging compositions in EarthSongs, he noted, have received the largest ovations. “We never underestimate our audience,” he said.

The EarthSongs program is tailored to both the audience and the venue, Oltman said; five of the eight sections of the concert will vary from night to night. That alleviates fatigue, but it also means that each audience has a different experience with EarthSongs. “Having choice in our program really helps us to pick what’s going to be the optimal performance for each individual venue ... which pieces are going to sound best in that hall,” Oltman said. Those decisions are made in advance of a concert, but others – those that come from an audience’s energy and attentiveness – Oltman makes on the fly.

“The tour program tends to be a living, breathing entity,” Oltman said. That’s a function of the flexibility built into the program but also because of the singers’ evolving relationship with the material over the months Chanticleer tours with it.

Although Chanticleer was founded to perform music that was centuries old, it has become a champion of contemporary composers such as Chen Yi. Oltman said the ensemble has commissioned more than 100 pieces in its 28-year history, and as a result more composers are working in vocal classical music than before. “Others have told us that they’ve really found their muse in choral writing thanks to us,” Oltman said. As a result, audiences have discovered a lot of music through Chanticleer.

That’s also a function of the group’s unusual composition. Generally, audiences haven’t ever heard anything similar to Chanticleer in a male group. Unlike nearly all ensembles, Chanticleer sings soprano parts, and therefore sounds more like a mixed choir than a men’s chorus. That helps create the “Chanticleer sound.”

“We try to keep the sound as consistent as possible,” Oltman explained. “When we are auditioning people, it’s not just plugging one person in for somebody who left, because you’re never going to find that same person again. ... It’s ... starting over with a blank canvas and re-painting the picture in its entirety. That might mean that certain aspects of the returning singers have to shift. If the new singer doesn’t have as much yellow, then other singers have to add some more yellow to make the picture have the same overall color.” For its current season, Chanticleer features four new singers.

Yet as choice a gig as Chanticleer is, Oltman knows that people are skeptical about auditioning.

“There’s such a culture in the singing world in the United States,” he said, one that emphasizes auditions and doing whatever you can to augment your singing income.

“That’s what you’re told your life will be like,” he said. “Chanticleer is so outside of the realm of experience, then, that I don’t think anybody says, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do,’ because no one ever believed it was probably possible.

“I get the impression sometimes that people are hesitant to audition for Chanticleer because ... the concept is so foreign. ... I think that actually deters a lot of people.”

But Oltman said he tries to stress that Chanticleer is a dream come true for most classical singers, himself included: “Don’t you get it? You won’t have to ever audition again!”

Chanticleer will perform on Monday, March 13, at Wesley United Methodist Church in Muscatine. The 7:30 p.m. concert is free, but tickets are required. To request tickets, send the number you’d like with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Wesley United Methodist Church, 400 Iowa Ave., Muscatine IA 52761. For more information, call (563)263-1596 or visit (http://www.wesleymethodist.org/jackson.htm).

Chanticleer clips:

Sarah Hopkins: “Past Life Melodies” (Windows Media format, from Sound in Spirit)

“Keep Your Hands on the Plow” (Windows Media format, from How Sweet the Sound)

”Shenandoah” (Windows Media format, from I Have Had Singing)

John Tavener: “Village Wedding” (Windows Media format, from Colors of Love

To download an audio version of the Reader interview with Matt Oldman (32 minutes, 8.6 megabytes, mp3), click here.
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