Chanticleer returning to Chicago for annual Christmas concerts in church

Since 1995, the all-male vocal ensemble has become an essential and beloved part of the city’s musical celebration of the yuletide.

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Chanticleer performs at First Presbyterian Church in Chicago in 2019. They return this holiday season for two concerts in December.

Chanticleer performs at First Presbyterian Church in Chicago in 2019. They return this holiday season for two concerts in December.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

With 40 performances of Chanticleer’s Christmas program in Chicago since 1995, the 12-member, all-male vocal ensemble has become an essential and beloved part of the city’s musical celebration of the yuletide.

The San Francisco-based group will return Dec. 6 and 7 for its now-annual holiday appearances under the auspices of Symphony Center Presents, the presenting arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As they have since 2000 (except during the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020), the concerts will take place in the intimate confines of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut. 

Chanticleer Christmas

Symphony Center Presents: ‘A Chanticleer Christmas’

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 and 7

Where: Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut

Tickets: $39-$65

Info: cso.org

“We really, really value our time in Chicago,” said Tim Keeler, who took over as Chanticleer’s music director in August 2020. “We really get in the holiday spirit when we get to Chicago. It’s nice to have two performances in the same space and get into a little bit of a rhythm and to settle down just for a second.”

Founded in San Francisco in 1978 by singer and musicologist Louis Botto, the Grammy Award-winning ensemble developed a distinctive sound and approach that quickly caught on. It has recorded dozens of albums and performed hundreds of concerts across the United States and beyond.

Instead of the usual soprano-alto-tenor-bass make-up of most choirs, Chanticleer uses countertenors, specially trained male falsetto voices, to provide its upper register. They give the ensemble an unusual sound that Keeler compared to The King’s Singers, a British a cappella group. “But we have our American flair on it,” he said.

The ensemble is marking its 45th anniversary this season, and it has both changed and not changed. As the membership of the group shifts with time, including the addition this year of tenor Vineel Garisa Mahal, its sound has inevitably morphed. 

“But one of the things that really excites me about the group” Keeler said, “and that I hear about time and again from audiences, is this ‘Chanticleer sound’ that we somehow manage to re-create every year.”

While the size of the ensemble has varied from eight to 12 singers over the years, its consistency comes from maintaining the same mix of vocal types and continuing the refined aural blend that long has been a hallmark.

Although Chanticleer has expanded into other classical periods and such American-born styles as jazz, gospel and spirituals, it originally focused on medieval and Renaissance music, and that continues to be a major emphasis. Indeed, it still presents some of the same works it has always performed.

While assembling this year’s yule program, Keeler went back and studied all of Chanticleer’s Christmas line-ups since 1978, and while they obviously vary year to year, there are many similarities. One constant is a candlelit entrance procession with the singers performing Gregorian chant and moving on to Renaissance music, works that take listeners back in time and conjure the cold and darkness of the winter season.

The mood turns more joyful and celebratory on the second half, with later classical works and traditional and modern carols, including new arrangements this year of “O come, all ye faithful” and “Merry Christmas, Darling,” which was popularized in the 1970s by the Carpenters. Following tradition, the concert ends with a medley of Christmas spirituals arranged by Joseph Jennings, a former Chanticleer music director.

Another highlight is the “Ave Maria” by German composer Franz Biebl (1906-2001), a work that has long been featured on Chanticleer’s Christmas programs. “It’s one of our calling cards as an ensemble,” Keeler said. “It’s a piece that Chanticleer really made famous, and it’s a piece we love to sing every year.”

Chanticleer is never busier than it is during the holiday season, when it presents some 25 performances between Thanksgiving and Christmas, including the two in Chicago.

“It’s a lot of concerts,” Keeler said. “It’s really important to us. It’s like performing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ every year or ‘The Nutcracker.’ Christmas is a big deal for us.”


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