Bringing It Home

Chanticleer Music Director Tim Keeler insists the group is “unconducted”; he is merely a music facilitator, “helping everybody along the way.”

At the first performance of “A Chanticleer Christmas,” right after Thanksgiving on Sunday, Nov. 28, the holidays felt so far away, says Tim Keeler, Chanticleer’s music director. But with each concert through the month of December – Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York City – this San Francisco-based, Grammy Award-winning male classical vocal ensemble is focused on “bringing it home.”

The last few concerts – in Oakland, Berkeley, Petaluma and, finally, Carmel – feel more like family gatherings, with so many familiar faces in the audience. “We’ve been here many times and it’s a special place for us,” Keeler says of the Carmel Mission Basilica, where the group will perform on Dec. 23. “A very intimate setting.”

The group started as an ensemble of friends, initiated in 1978 by singer and musicologist Louis Botto. “He was a countertenor, like me,” Keeler says of the first music director. “He wanted to explore the music of the Renaissance.”

That partly explains the lack of female voices in Chanticleer; it consists of 12 male members – six countertenors, three tenors, three basses. As Keeler points out, women were absent from the world of music during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Botto wanted to hear the works the way they were designed.

Another explanation? “Similar voice timbre and similar physicality create a particular resonance,” he says.

Chanticleer was Keeler’s target since grad school (he has a bachelor’s degree from Princeton, a master’s in music and science from Cambridge – “England has choirs that are best in the world,” he notes). He auditioned in 2014, didn’t get in and went to New York to sing as a freelancer with various ensembles there. Chanticleer called him in 2017 and he sang with them for a year as a countertenor. Now, as music director since 2020, he doesn’t do much singing, but “it’s terrific to be back.”

This year’s Christmas program reflects Keeler’s taste: “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” is his favorite Christmas song. Also, the 450th anniversary of the birth of German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) sounded like a great pretext to celebrate his Christmas compositions.

The program varies slightly from location to location, but its core is Praetorius (“Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,” “Rorate coeli”) and his countrymen: 11th-century saint and composer Hildegard von Bingen, Praetorius’ peer Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) as well as 19th-century romantic Johannes Brahms.

A CHANTICLEER CHRISTMAS happens at 6pm Thursday, Dec. 23. Carmel Mission, 3080 Rio Road, Carmel. $35-$79. (415) 252-8589, chanticleer.org

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