Fundraiser’s in awe of the gift of song

Growing up in Princeton, N.J., Jesse Antin’s “team sport” was singing, his coach and mentor was an English choirmaster and his after-school regimen was practicing in a rigorous boys’ choral program, in preparation for each Sunday’s church service.

Jesse Antin

Jesse Antin

“It was very much a source of my self-esteem,” he recalls. “I’m not good at baseball, but I’m really good at singing.”

Having begun his musical career at age 7, Antin, now 36, is still hard at it. The development director at the campus’s Greater Good Science Center and father of two (the second born earlier this month), he’s the founder of Clerestory, a semi-professional men’s vocal ensemble, and a former member of the professional male chorus Chancticleer.

A clerestory, Antin explains, is a window set high in a cathedral or cathedral-like space — and “shining light on old things in a new way” is what his ensemble does best. One of the original mainstays of its repertoire is sacred music performed in secular settings in “a very illuminated and transparent, modern way,” he says.

Since its founding in 2006 with other Chanticleer alums, Clerestory has created some 25 distinct concert programs, each around a theme. Last season’s “Sea Songs” was performed in three Bay Area venues on the waterfront. “Oh Sweet, Spontaneous Earth” featured songs inspired by nature.

Christmas music made in the U.S.A.

Clerestory will perform its 2013 Christmas program, featuring songs written or arranged by Americans, in two concerts this weekend:

Saturday, Nov. 30, 8 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco

Sunday, Dec. 1, 8 p.m., St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley

See the Clerestory website for details and to purchase tickets (also available at the door).


All the music, available free online

Recordings of Clerestory’s concert projects are available free online, to stream or for download.

“O Magnum Mysterium,” from Clerestory’s 2009 Canción de Navidad program

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The group’s sole studio-recorded CD, Night Draws Near, relates to Halloween, All Souls Day and Dia de los Muertos. This weekend Clerestory will offer its annual Christmas concert, this time showcasing songs written or arranged by American composers.

Antin, whose speaking voice is low but who sings alto, notes that the group is no longer made up exclusively of Chanticleer alums; some members have sung, for instance, with Philharmonia Baroque or (as Antin has) with American Bach Soloists. What this musical “A-team” has in common, he says, is the ensemble-singer ethic — the conviction that “you can do more in harmony with other people than you can just on your own.”

Connecting the dots

There’s a clear connection, for Antin, between his off-hours passion and his day job raising funds to support work on social and emotional well-being. While performing with Chanticleer, it struck him that “your group’s donors are the ones in the first rows, smiling at you. It got me thinking that fundraising is by no means a scary thing.”

‘An experience that defines you’

Jesse Antin was working as a paralegal on the East Coast and planning to apply to law school when his life took an unexpected turn: He auditioned with and joined the acclaimed San Francisco-based male vocal ensemble Chanticleer.

During his five years with the group, Antin sang on seven CDs (including the 2002 Grammy winner Lamentations and Praises) and performed in most major U.S. cities. During that era he also met his wife, a psychologist and Berkeley grad who played for the Cal women’s intercollegiate tennis team as an undergrad.

Antin calls his time with Chanticleer “the pinnacle for me” — “probably the greatest decision I made in my life, to uproot from the East Coast, as I was headed toward a career that I might not have found fulfilling, and instead to do this thing that I do better than anything else.”

“That was my … Peace Corps,” he says, “an experience as a young man that defines you, in ways,” even though you “turn the page on that chapter at some point.” 

That budding interest in fundraising for nonprofits took him, after Chanticleer, to full-time development work with the environmental-law organization Earthjustice.

Now, at the Greater Good Center, he does “a little of everything,” from grant writing to reaching out to members and major donors — and is “drinking the Kool Aid on the research,” he laughs.

“Purely on an evolutionary level, the communities that are fit to reproduce are the ones that are cooperative and altruistic toward one another,” he says, citing findings the center supports. As for philanthropy, “if you give to charity, you feel great… You’re getting these little surges of dopamine, of oxytocin.”

“The more I’ve learned” about positive psychology, “in order to become better at my job,” says Antin, the more “I see that this gift I’ve been given, to sing with these guys… is really valuable.”

Antin notes that the center’s founding faculty director, psychologist Dacher Keltner, has a major new grant to study the science of awe.

Clerestory’s music combines lots of different sources of that powerfully mysterious emotion, especially when performed in a beautiful space, he says: “I hope his research gets to the bottom of how music can inspire awe.”


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