Chanticleer in fine voice at 35

San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

It all began sometime in the late '70s - there's a little uncertainty about the exact date - during a dinner at Rob Bell's house. The participants were friends from their various memberships in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the men's choir at Grace Cathedral, and someone proposed this idea: What about forming a men's chorus, perhaps eight or 10 voices strong, to sing the polyphonic masterpieces of the Renaissance?

The idea is usually credited to Louis A. Botto, a singer and musicologist who went on to be the guiding spirit behind the undertaking that resulted. Bell, who was there, insists that the original idea came from another singer, John Mihaly.

Either way, the project took wing. Nine singers were assembled, music by William Byrd, Johannes Ockeghem and others was gathered and rehearsed, and on June 27, 1978, Chanticleer made its first appearance before a capacity crowd at San Francisco's Mission Dolores.

Today, the group that began under such Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland circumstances is an international phenomenon, with an annual operating budget of around $3 million and a performance schedule of more than 100 concerts a year in the Bay Area and throughout the world. It boasts an extensive discography, including two Grammy-winning discs, and a fan base that flocks to its concerts.

The repertoire has expanded as well, to include not only Renaissance music but also gospel and pop material, music from the Classical and Romantic eras, and new works by some 70 composers who have been commissioned to write for the group.

As Chanticleer - the group takes its name from the clear-voiced rooster in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" - marks its 35th anniversary with concerts on Friday and Saturday featuring guest star Nellie McKay, it would seem to have brought to life every dream its founders had around that dining room table.

A known brand

"It's the Cadillac of choral organizations, a brand that everyone knows," says Philip Wilder, who sang with the group throughout the 1990s, serving as assistant music director and education director. "I think Louis would be really proud of how it has continued."

Botto, who died from complications of AIDS in 1997 at 45, was a hard-driving visionary whose energy, determination and resourcefulness did more than anything else to launch the group to its early success.

"Louis was a volcano of ideas," says Tom Hart, who joined the group after its founding and served alongside Botto as general manager. "They came flooding forth, and it took a lot of energy just to keep up with him."

In particular, Botto made it his mission to ensure that the group could provide full-time employment, first to a core group of eight singers and eventually to its current complement of 12.

That financial stability, and the relatively low turnover that results, is what makes the group's artistic consistency possible, says President and General Director Christine Bullin, who took the helm of the organization in 1999.

Very stable track

"This is not a group where you form up for each tour, and if John can't make it, then Bob can," she says. "We try to keep the whole aesthetic on a very stable track. When people are booking the group for 2015, they know that the Chanticleer sound will not have changed between now and then."

But the early years were an exercise in making do and scraping by - especially during the group's extensive concert tours.

"We traveled in a 10-passenger van, which we named Sarah," Hart recalled. "And Louis, who was a great cook, cooked one big meal a day, which kept us all healthy.

"The longest stretch I remember was one string of 14 concerts in a row, followed by a couple of days off. We took advantage of those days off by planning the routes around national parks. One day off we were at Yellowstone, another at Zion - we were like college kids on break."

Aside from Botto, the person most responsible for the early shaping of Chanticleer's artistic profile was Joseph Jennings, who joined in 1983 as a countertenor and soon became the music director. Before retiring in 2008, Jennings contributed a wealth of music to the repertoire - particularly arrangements of the gospel music he'd grown up with in South Carolina - and brought a new level of discipline and artistic consistency to the group's singing.

Inevitably, Chanticleer's growth and increasing prominence brought challenges with it.

Level of professionalism

"Chanticleer grew up for the first time because people came from other parts of the country to sing in the group," says Hart, "and they expected a certain level of professionalism. When it's just friends going out doing concerts, and the check is late, it's no big deal. But now it was something else.

"I think this happens to every group as it gets older - you lose some of the democracy and naivete and freshness. At the beginning you control the organization, and then at some point it becomes a person and you do things for the organization rather than vice versa."

Those pressures were only exacerbated by Botto's death. The group hired a new music director, Craig Hella Johnson, who lasted less than a year. When the board hired Bullin, it signaled a shift to a new - and more traditional - kind of arts organization.

"It was an interesting time in the late '70s, with the creation of these small groups like us and the Kronos Quartet and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra," says Bullin. "People with an idea were encouraged to just go ahead and do it.

Facing a crisis

"By the time I arrived, Chanticleer was facing a 'death of the founder' crisis. Every organization thinks their travail and drama are exclusive to them, when in fact they're usually pretty classic."

Making the transition was difficult, Bullin says, especially for the singers who'd been around from the beginning.

"Many of them knew Louis, and considered the group to be his thing and their thing. But it needed to become a more institutional thing."

That meant shoring up the board, which Bullin was able to do through contacts she'd amassed during her stint as head of the San Francisco Opera Center, and standardizing the operations.

Some of the activities from the group's early years have been expanded and strengthened, particularly the education program. The Louis A. Botto (LAB) Choir, begun in 2010, brings choral singing to thousands of high school and college students nationwide - and helps bring in audiences to the group's concerts.

"One of the things we love is to tour into some small town and see the high school choir's bus pull up to our concert," says Bullin. "For a lot of high school choir nerds, Chanticleer is like Lady Gaga."

Others, conversely, have fallen by the wayside. Longtime observers often invoke the 1994 staging of Britten's opera "Curlew River" as a highlight of the group's history. The problem with that sort of project, Bullin says, is that it's not sustainable.

"Those projects don't have legs, because once the singers who've done them move on, then you're left with nothing. Unless someone wants to give us a lot of money for it, that kind of project represents mission creep."

And turnover among the singers is a constant, especially given the demands of life on the road. Some leave and go on to sing with other groups, including Clerestory - the men's chorus that will join Chanticleer on Saturday night - or the Philharmonia Chorale.

Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that turnover is almost constant, because there's one notable exception. Eric Alatorre, the singer renowned for his enormous, resonant bass - and his equally outsize mustache - has been with the group since 1990 and shows no signs of hanging up his spurs. He's a link to the earliest chapters of the group's history, and the embodiment of everything that's best about its musical prowess.

"I'm patient," he says when asked about the secret of his longevity. "With something like this, there's always a little soul-searching. It's a fun adventure at first, but then you have to decide whether it's just running away with the circus, or something I want to make a commitment to.

"And once you do, that can be for anywhere from three to 23 years. But I've watched this group go from a local phenomenon to something known in California, and then spread out to become a household name throughout the music world." {sbox}