Chanticleer’s new Mass is a holy experience

For the first time in its history, Chanticleer commissioned five composers, four of whom had never written for the male ensemble before, to create a composite Mass. Intended as a celebration of Chanticleer’s founder, countertenor Louis I. Botto (1951-1997), on the 10th anniversary of his death from AIDS, each of the five contributions to “And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass” is dedicated to an eminent San Franciscan, including “voice of San Francisco” columnist Herb Caen, slain gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and arts philanthropist James H. Schwabacher Jr.

In quintessential San Franciscan fashion, Music Director Joseph H. Jennings recruited composers with varied national, spiritual and ethnic backgrounds. All share a facility with a wide variety of musical techniques, from spoken word to distinctly 21st-century harmonies. Chanticleer framed the mass (recorded on Warner/Rhino) with plainsong (Gregorian Chant), and fleshed out the five contributions with two gorgeous 16th-century polychoral works by Andrea Gabrieli and three fascinating, distinctly modern-sounding madrigals by the 16th century’s Carlo Gesualdo.

Though asking five composers in different locales to create a unified whole is a risky proposition, the experiment had several things going for it: Jennings’ unassailable taste and ear, and his ensemble’s exalted, sonorous tones. The Mass was presented Thursday in San Francisco’s towering Grace Cathedral; it is doubtful Chanticleer has ever sounded better.

The malesopranos made an exceedingly round, pure sound, thanks in no small part to the strong voice of Eric S. Brenner. Longtime bass Eric Alatorre, he of the handlebar mustache and unerring pitch, continues to ground the ensemble while maintaining impeccable balance. Tenor Brian Hinman is another asset, a diminutive Clark Kent lookalike with a voice of seductive purity.

Chief among the mass’s attractions is the “Kyrie” of Tucson-born Douglas J. Cuomo. Bay Area-raised, the New Yorker’s equal facility with the sacred and the profane (his oeuvre extends from a sacred cantata on the Bhagavad Gita to the theme for the TV series “Sex and the City”) has created an irresistible work that moves from heavenly simplicity to contrapuntal complexity.

Equally transporting is London-born Ivan Moody’s “Ravenna Sanctus.” Sung in Greek, the 10-minute work, at least as compelling as Morton Lauridsen’s oft-performed “O magnum mysterium,” creates fascinating ringing and echo effects while contrasting Chanticleer’s soaring low voices with its exceptionally soaring altos and trebles. I was also won over by Dublin-born Michael McGlynn’s “Agnus Dei.”

Tel Aviv-born Shulamit Ran’s 12-minute “Credo/Ani Ma’amin” seems overly long, perhaps because its two slowly spoken sections are recited in an overly proper, stilted fashion.

Kamran Ince’s “(Gloria) Everywhere” has a haunting ending but takes time getting there.

Regardless, Chanticleer’s ability to create sacred space through sound is a rare gift that transforms “A Chanticleer Mass” into a holy experience.

Chanticleer

Where: Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. June 2

Contact: (415) 392-4400 or www.chanticleer.org

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