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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 14, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For Chanticleer Singers, the Day Job is the Job
No wonder Chanticleer is a good listen. The a cappella group is the
only independent full-time classical vocal ensemble in the United
States. It practices five days a week and refines its musical command
in some 100 concerts each year. "It’s like a normal job," says alto
Jesse Antin, a Princeton native, in a telephone interview from his
home in Berkeley, California. "We turn up every day and rehearse for
four or five hours."
Chanticleer performs at McCarter Theater Monday, April 19, in a
program called "Passport to Song." The standing room only Princeton
appearance is part of a three-week east coast tour that began in New
Orleans and ends in upstate New York. The Princeton program, designed
to appeal to a wide audience, includes music from the Renaissance to
the present. The following day Chanticleer returns to the Metropolitan
Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur to sing "Sound in Spirit." That
concert has been sold out for months.
Twenty-five years old last year, the ensemble was founded by Louis
Botto, a graduate student in musicology, who was particularly
interested in vocal music of the medieval and Renaissance periods.
Puzzled that much of this repertoire was not being performed, Botto
started the ensemble and served as its artistic director until 1997.
With musical roots in the choirs of Princeton’s Trinity Episcopal
Church and Princeton High School, Princeton’s Jesse Antin has been a
member of Chanticleer for four years. Now 26, he was born the year
before Chanticleer started. His parents, Mark Antin, a civil trial
attorney with a firm in Parsippany, and Sarah Antin, a painter, moved
to Princeton in 1982, when Jesse was five. Their younger son, Judd, a
graduate of Johns Hopkins University, is a candidate for a master’s
degree in anthropology from the University of Maryland; he, too, grew
up musically in Trinity Church and Princeton High School. Antin’s
family is musical. His paternal grandmother, Nicole Antin, was a
concert harpist. His maternal grandfather put himself through law
school leading a dance band where he played trumpet and saxophone. His
father’s instrument is clarinet; his mother plays piano and flute.
In a telephone conversation, Sarah Antin says, "We had no warning that
Jesse would be a singer. We can’t sing a note." Still, she considers
it "almost inevitable" that Jesse became a musician.
A Chanticleer alto with a naturally low voice, Antin explains that the
group’s altos, along with its sopranos, are counter-tenors. "Any man
who sings in his head voice is a counter-tenor," he says. "Formerly,
counter-tenors were said to sing ‘falsetto.’ There’s nothing unnatural
about a head voice. Women always use it. Counter-tenors exploit that
voice that every man has, and choose to develop it. There’s nothing
false about it."
"I learned to sing alto at Trinity," Antin says. "I sang the top
soprano line as boy. When my voice changed, I didn’t want to become a
bass because I liked the alto line. But in the Princeton High School
choir there were no male altos and I sang bass. In high school you’re
trying hard not to be any weirder than you already are."
"By college, I had developed the full range of my voice, so I was
useful to choir leaders all around New England," says Antin, a Brown
graduate. "I could sing alto and bass, and could fake tenor. Thanks to
John Bertalot [former director of music at Trinity Church] I could
Bertalot’s musical leadership was both demanding and compassionate.
"Choir training is like pushing a man up a greasy pole," he said in a
1997 U.S. 1 interview. "If you don’t keep pushing, he will slip down."
Yet Bertalot showed his nurturing side by comparing training a choir
to growing a garden.
As a member of the Princeton High School Choir, Antin encountered a
combination of high standards and encouragement similar to Bertalot’s.
"I was in the high school choir the last year that Bill Trego and
Nancianne Parrella were there," Jesse says. "They were an institution
at Princeton High School for about 30 years. By the time I graduated
Charles Sundquist was there. During my first Chanticleer tour, in
2000, we performed at McCarter and I visited a Princeton High choir
rehearsal. I was so proud of them. Chanticleer does a lot of work with
high school choirs throughout the country and the choir at Princeton
goes far beyond what most other high school choirs in the country can
Graduating from Brown in 1999 with majors in philosophy and music,
Antin "explored all musical things," he says. "I didn’t have to pick.
If I had to choose an instrument, it would have been organ." Assistant
director of the Brown choir, he was also assistant director of music
at a Newport, Rhode Island, church during his first three college
years. He composed for church choirs and sang in vocal groups in
"My outside music was all on weekends or evenings," Antin says. "So I
could devote my whole time on campus to academic activities." Still,
he noticed the pressure. "If I had a vocal performance Saturday night
and had to play the prelude Sunday morning, there would be a few notes
missing." And if he had to write a paper? "I gave a reasonably
convincing performance on Sunday and got an A-minus on the paper,"
Antin says. He was curbing his native propensity for perfection.
After graduating from Brown Antin worked in a Providence law firm for
a year and enjoyed the job. "I didn’t picture a performing career," he
says. "I auditioned for Chanticleer with low expectations. But when I
thought of singing in the ensemble as a job, it became real in my
With his acceptance into Chanticleer Antin moved to California where
he met Lindsey Davis, a family therapist and part-time tennis coach,
now his fiancee. "A wonderful girl," says Antin’s mother. The wedding
is in June.
Antin labels his career as a full-time Chanticleer vocalist "amazing."
"We don’t have to seek out our own work," he says. "As artists all we
have to do is show up and get on the plane."
The 12 members of Chanticleer earn a salary and get health and other
job benefits. Last year the starting salary was in the high $30,000s.
Despite its requirement that members live in the expensive San
Francisco Bay area, Chanticleer’s singers appear to be financially
unscathed. "I know of nobody who’s left because of money," Antin says.
"I think that everybody who auditions has no idea how much it pays. We
get to do the thing we want to do, and share it with tens of thousands
of people in our audiences."
Chanticleer’s schedule is so dense that it is almost impossible for
its vocalists to pursue teaching careers or take on non-vocal
activities. For 20 to 25 weeks a year Chanticleer is on the road to
all corners of the United States. Its last tour reached Anchorage,
Alaska. In addition Chanticleer tours internationally. In June and
July Chanticleer sings in Germany, France, Sweden, and the
Netherlands, where it makes its Concertgebouw debut.
"Basically, being in Chanticleer is only singing," Antin says. "One of
my favorite things is to accompany singers on piano. There are a lot
of accompanists who can play a lot of music that I can’t. But I really
understand what it’s like to partner with a singer." He manages to
squeeze in an occasional performance as accompanist for the tapes that
singers are required to submit for auditions.
Chanticleer’s singing is captured on roughly two dozen CDs. Showing
the same sense of adventure in business that it displays in its
programming, the ensemble created an independent record label in 1987,
as its 10th anniversary approached. The energy of the group was
reflected in its release of 10 discs in a six-year period. In 1994
Chanticleer signed an exclusive recording contract with Teldec
Classics International, providing for wide distribution of its
recordings throughout the United States and abroad. In November
Chanticleer issued its first DVD, "Christmas with Chanticleer," which
captured its annual Christmas concert in the Metropolitan Museum of
Art’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. The program aired on PBS.
Antin singles out "Our American Journey," a CD issued to commemorate
the 25th anniversary of Chanticleer and one that shows Chanticleer’s
range. It was nominated for a Grammy in 2004. Chronologically, the
compositions range from 17th century Spanish music written in the New
World to pieces commissioned within the last few years. Stylistically,
they run from the robust standards "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"
and "Camptown Races" to Steven Stucky’s delicate "Whispers." Antin is
one of four soloists in the composition by Stucky, a faculty member at
For its uniqueness and its emotional power, "Whispers" is a piece to
be singled out. To a William Byrd motet of 1605 Stucky adds text from
Walt Whitman’s 1868 "Whispers of Heavenly Death." Quietly, the
composer spins a mystical texture that is simultaneously peaceful and
tension-laden as it shifts in and out of focus harmonically. In its
musical approach "Whispers" is typical of Chanticleer’s physical
presence. With unforced voices combined in sculpted singing,
Chanticleer makes the music shine.
But musical excellence is only one aspect of Chanticleer’s world-view
as Antin sees it. Solidarity with its audiences is another essential.
"Part of doing a concert," Antin explains, "is to get everyone in the
room to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves
and to transcend the moment of sitting there."
– Elaine Strauss
Chanticleer, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. The
Grammy-winning a cappella ensemble, in concert. Music director Joseph
Jennings. Standing room available, $15. Monday, April 19, 8 p.m.
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