STANFORD -- And so once again we crawl into our Chanticleer cocoon, a place of stillness and spirit, as "A Chanticleer Christmas" begins its rollout across the Bay Area. The first performance was Wednesday night at Stanford Memorial Church, where the temperature was wintry, though the place seemed to warm up considerably as soon as the 12-man chorus began to process down the center aisle.
That's how it always begins: with lights out, with Chanticleer singing plainchant, each member holding a candle -- real wax, real flames in the darkness.
Year after year, it gets almost corny, writing about this Christmas program and how effective it is. It is a precision product, solidly engineered with little tolerance for error; that describes the Chanticleer sound, generally. Folded through this holiday program, that sound spells relief: an evening of respite, for stepping outside one's routines, like a musical Sabbath.
In a minute, I'll describe some of the highlights of this year's program, which samples 1,000 years of repertory. (It repeats Friday in Oakland, then moves through the Bay Area and down the Central Coast.) But first this: leaving Memorial Church, I was trying not to go overboard, and so I took a stab at cataloging a few negatives.
No luck; what really is there to criticize, unless Chanticleer itself -- a special organism, creating a silken sound -- just doesn't appeal to you? (Maybe you don't like silk shirts.) I suppose there's the occasional crack in its sonic veneer, or a slip in the program's pacing; taking too long to move, say, from soothing 11th-century plainsong to rousing carols. And you could mock Chanticleer for sometimes being its own cover band: each year breaking out Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," the chorus's biggest hit, sort of like the Stones doing "Satisfaction."
But beyond that?
Anyway, some highlights.
There was Hans Leo Hassler's "Hodie Christus natus est"; its whispered mysteries kept peeking out from between the lines of this Renaissance motet for double choir. And there was the late John Tavener's "A Christmas Round," rich with exquisitely quivering filigree, and his "Today the Virgin," almost giddy with its folksy earthiness and melodic rise-and-fall.
British (and Russian Orthodox) Tavener, who died last month, enjoyed a long collaboration with Chanticleer. Steven Sametz, based in Pennsylvania, continues to compose for the San Francisco-based chorus: "O magnum mysterium," his latest commission, was the program's most dazzling piece -- close-packed harmonies, lush and warming and filled with colors, as if light were falling on a dozen entwined necklaces. The sopranos were something else. And I don't know if Sametz is a Brian Wilson fan, but his new piece carries more than a whiff of pop wistfulness, reminiscent of the Beach Boy at his artsiest.
"A Chanticleer Christmas" also embraced the audience with a velvety excerpt from Rachmaninoff's "All Night Vigil." And Pavel Chesnokov's setting of "Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God" posed a basic question: How does Chanticleer -- a mere dozen a cappella voices -- manage to sound like a massive chorus? Memorial Church's resonant acoustics had something to do with it, but, still, I'm mystified.
The program ended with a medley of Christmas spirituals from the African-American church, arranged by Joseph Jennings, Chanticleer's former music director. Now directed by Jace Wittig, the chorus sang "Oh, What a Pretty Little Baby" -- slowly and patiently, the soprano voices of alto Cortez Mitchell and soprano Gregory Peebles wrapping around one another. Bass Eric Allatore patted his right foot, while laying out the bass line, the solid substructure: The man has a potent sense of time and phrasing; he never over-sings. He kept it up through "Jesus, Oh what a Wonderful Child," which featured bass-baritone Marques Jerrell Ruff, a new member, powerfully delivering this message: "Sing glory!"
Upcoming performances: 8 p.m. Friday, Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland; 8 p.m. Saturday, First Congregational Church, Berkeley; 8 p.m. Sunday, St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco; 6 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 19, Mission Santa Clara; 8 p.m. Dec. 22, St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco; 6 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 23, Carmel Mission.
Tickets: $30-$65; www.chanticleer.org