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Cello Can Replace Voice? Chanticleer Thinks So

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The celebrated San Francisco-based male choral group Chanticleer had a surprise pinch hitter on Saturday, as bass Eric Alatorre was replaced by cellist Laura McLellan. Alatorre had fallen ill with laryngitis.

The turn to cello, rather than to another singer, was determined primarily by the sudden time constraint the group faced. "On two days notice there was no singer who could have sight read that program," commented Chanticleer general director Christine Bullin.

"[McLellan] didn't have to do any words, just fill in a baseline where it was needed," Bullin said. "And Eric has an extraordinary voice of which there's just not a whole lot running around America. You couldn't find a substitute on that notice."

Both the low tones and long-playing notes of the cello were appealing matches in the sudden search for a substitute. "The rich burnished sound of the cello was comparable to the kind of bassy, lower timbre that we were looking for," Bullin said. "Because so much of this music involves a bass drone, the ability to sustain a note over a long period of time the way a string instrument can was important," Bullin said.

Chanticleer's Saturday concert was entitled "The Boy Whose Father Was God," a program of almost entirely new music for the group, including three world premieres. "We'll be fine," the group stated on its blog in a post about the change. "And it will be an interesting experience for us, and we hope, for our audience."

Chanticleer is considered to be one of the preeminent male choral groups in the U.S., regularly performing and recording worldwide, the winner of two Grammy awards and with over 30 recordings to its name. The group recently made its China debut as part of the San Francisco delegation to Expo 2010.

Cellist McLellan performed from the front row of Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light. Alatorre did appear at his usual location on stage with the group, reportedly to help with the group conducting of the music. "The communication is all eyes and little nods and the book and that sort of thing," commented Bullin. "It wasn't just for show." Chanticleer performs without a conductor.

Cellist McLellan again performed during Sunday's performance at St. Francis Church in Sacramento. Bullin pointed out that McLellan did not play every note that Alatorre would have sung, but that "she was filling in the sonic landscape in ways he would have done."

The replacement performances have marked only the second time that Bullin could recall in which a Chanticleer switch-out was made. The first was for a soprano during a performance of Chanticleer's Divine Tapastry program several years ago, according to Bullin.

Chanticleer is next scheduled to perform in San Jose this Thursday, followed by San Francisco. While McLellan will remain on hand, she won't necessarily be called upon to pick up her bow. "Eric is planning to be back on deck," Bullin said.