Chanticleer may be the only independent full-time classical vocal ensemble in the United States. Since its inception in 1978, the group has developed an excellent reputation for its interpretation of music from many genres, and its bell-like sound has set a new ensemble standard.
Originally founded to sing Renaissance vocal repertoire, Chanticleer has toured worldwide and released dozens of recordings. While most of Chanticleer's work is done a cappella, the group has collaborated such unusual projects as a fully-staged opera, recordings of jazz standards with the Don Haas Trio, and performances with the unorthodox Japanese dancers Eiko and Koma. Its repertoire ranges from chant to twentieth century pop. In 1978, founder Louis Botto, a graduate student in musicology, was disturbed by the fact that sacred Renaissance vocal music was so rarely performed, so he formed a group to sing this neglected repertoire. Trying to hold to the male-only Renaissance tradition, Botto asked friends who sang with him in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Grace Cathedral's Choir of Men and Boys to join the group. Rehearsals began, and the ensemble arranged a debut performance in San Francisco's historic Mission Dolores.
The works chosen for the debut included compositions by Renaissance composers whose music would become staples of the group's repertoire: Byrd, Ockeghem, Morley, Dufay, and Josquin. The members settled on the name Chanticleer in honor of the "clear-singing" rooster in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which Charlie Erikson, one of the baritones, was reading at the time. While maintaining its basic repertoire of Renaissance music, Chanticleer also began experimenting with music of other genres. The number of singers varied and eventually settled at 12.
In 1980, the ensemble participated in the Festival of Masses in San Francisco. Robert Shaw was the festival's conductor that year, and after hearing Chanticleer's solo concert proclaimed it "one of the most beautiful musical experiences" of his life. A turning point in Chanticleer's history came when Joseph Jennings, a countertenor, joined the group in 1983. Other members soon recognized his exceptional vocal and interpretive abilities and asked him to become Chanticleer's first music director. Since he accepted that position, Jennings' startling vocal clarity and innovative arrangements have become hallmarks of the ensemble.
International early music audiences began to find out about Chanticleer after a 1984 performance at a large scholarly conference in Belgium. Chanticleer created its own label, Chanticleer Records, releasing a tenth-anniversary CD in 1988. Over the next six years, the ensemble released ten recordings on its private label. These CDs sold well at Chanticleer's concerts, and in 1994 Teldec Classics International signed Chanticleer to an exclusive recording contract. The group's recordings suddenly became available all over North America and abroad. By 1991, Chanticleer was financially able to make all 12 of its members full-time employees, allowing the group to tour more frequently and take on a wide variety of projects. Since then the ensemble has performed and recorded with the London Studio Orchestra, jazz legend George Shearing, and the New York Philharmonic. In 1994, the group presented a critically acclaimed, fully staged performance of Benjamin Britten's opera Curlew River. In 1997 Chanticleer recorded works by Mexican Baroque composers Manuel de Zumaya and Ignácio de Jerusalem with an orchestra of period instruments. It has commissioned works by many of the late twentieth century's foremost composers, including David Conte, Morton Gould, Bernard Rands, and Chen Yi (who served as Chanticleer's composer-in-residence from 1993 to 1996). In 1999, Chanticleer released a collection of these works on its CD Colors of Love, for which it received a Grammy Award. The group commissioned five composers from a variety of faith traditions to contribute movements to And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass, which the group premiered in 2007 and also recorded. In 2008, Chanticleer was the first vocal group to be inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, and was honored as Musical America's Ensemble of the Year.