As part of the official opening of the new Ames Family Atrium, the Cleveland Museum of Art presented the brilliant twelve-man choral ensemble Chanticleer in a sold-out late evening concert on 30 January. The new 39,000 square foot atrium, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly is a striking public space, part of the museum’s major expansion project which will be completed at the end of 2013 after more than a decade of planning and construction. Prior to the concert, museum director David Franklin gave remarks about the design and intention of the new space as a connector between the original and new portions of the museum.

Chanticleer’s widely varied program, with the overall title “The Siren’s Call”, was part of the group’s 35th anniversary tour. Throughout the two-hour program Chanticleer brought sensitive musicianship, clarity of texture and pitch, and an unerring sense of style to each composition. Jace Wittig is the group’s Interim Music Director; however, Chanticleer performs without a conductor. Their remarkable precision is achieved through a series of imperceptible nods and glances.

Chanticleer opened with three Italian madrigals by Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi and Gesualdo, with a setting of the sacred text Ave maris stella by Palestrina, and a thickly textured French madrigal by Nicolas Gombert. Gesualdo’s Luci serene e chiare, a setting of a lavish love poem, was surprisingly tame in its harmonic structure, although at the words “O miracol d’Amore!” (O miracle of love!) the is a striking dissonance resolved unconventionally, and the madrigal ends with an unusual modulation to a remote key. Palestrina’s beautiful Ave maris stella, with its alternation of plainsong with polyphony, showed Chanticleer’s skill of blending the Italian Renaissance master’s transparent harmonies.

Two short part-songs by Grieg and Elgar showed Chanticleer in men’s glee club splendor. Samuel Barber’s own arrangement of his song “Heaven-Haven (A Nun Takes the Veil)” was given a sensitive and romantic reading, with the tenors carrying the melodic weight. Clytus Gottwald’s unusual arrangement of Mahler’s song Erinnerung (“Remembrance”) had the solo taken by Cortez Mitchell, one of Chanticleer’s remarkable high voices, with the piano accompaniment arranged, with text, for the ensemble.

Die Lorelei, from the cycle Sirens by the young American DJ and composer Mason Bates, is a setting of Heinrich Heine’s poem in German about the legendary women who tempted sailors to a rocky death with their unearthly singing. Bates’ work was full of haunting music that was indeed unearthly in its vocal effects and oddly floating melodies against sustained notes. Bates particularly captures the verse in which Heine describes the “peculiar, powerful melody” of Die Lorelei.

The high point of the concert was Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s Canticum calamitatis maritimae, based on the unlikely combination of a fragment of the Roman Requiem Mass, a news report of the sinking of the car ferry Estonia extracted from an all-Latin language Finnish radio news station, and a portion of Psalm 107 (“They that go down to the sea in ships...”), also sung in Latin. Chanticleer employed a wide variety of vocal effects: whispering, singing on neutral syllables, solo chanting, and a folksong-like melody based on the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”. It was full of arresting sounds and music and Chanticleer’s performance was dramatic and heartbreaking.

Chinese-American composer Chen Yi composed the brief “I Hear the Siren’s Call” especially for Chanticleer’s 35th anniversary. It is wordless, again employing extended vocal techniques and traditional Chinese musical idioms to portray the sirens, as well as the sailors’ songs. The two songs become increasingly intertwined, until the ship founders on the rocks and a single, satisfied siren sings one last song.

John Corigliano’s setting of the English translation of Baudelaire’s L’invitation au voyage is lush, as was Chanticleer’s sensuous performance. At least one listener was enraptured by Baudelaire’s portrait of “richness, quietness, and pleasure”.

The remainder of the program was devoted to lighter fare: several short works by the Irish composer-conductor Michael McGlynn, a Japanese folksong arrangement, and a sexy new arrangement of Tom Waits’ song “Temptation” – there was heat flowing from the stage platform when, during the introduction to the song, a solo soprano launched into a phrase of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. The concert ended with a Chanticleer tradition: settings of the spirituals “The Old Ship of Zion” and “Over My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)” which had the audience clapping along. The men of Chanticleer received a well-deserved standing ovation for their efforts.