By William Randall Beard – Star Tribune (Minneapolis) – October 14, 2011
Concert shows off both the group and Cowles Center.
The Cowles Center in Minneapolis was designed as a home for dance. But Thursday’s season-opening concert by the male vocal ensemble Cantus — the only non-dance organization performing in the center’s first season — demonstrated that the space is also ideal for chamber music. Individual voices were separate and clear, but blended into a strong, unified sound.
“On the Shoulders of Giants” seeks to explore the roots of inspiration while allowing the group to put its stylistic stamp on music spanning almost 900 years. In one set, Cantus celebrated 19th-century Romanticism, with choruses by Grieg, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. They honored Schubert’s sweet melodies without allowing them to become cloying and found real comedy in Grieg’s “Bådn-Låt,” about a cat. They created a robust sound for Mendelssohn’s “Jagdlied.”
They juxtaposed “Sederunt,” one of the oldest pieces of polyphony (circa 1200), with an Alleluia by modern America master Randall Thompson, singing the church music with the commitment of monks.
They were as at home with the folk music of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as they were with the Sufi prayer “Zikr” by A.R. Rahman, or the Russian choral tradition of Pavel Chesnokov’s “Salvation Is Created.”
But Cantus is about more than stylistic accuracy. Their performances speak to the soul. “Luceat Eis,” by member Timothy C. Takach, commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, truly touched the heart, as did Paul Manz’s “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come,” written to a son he thought was dying.
Their full-throated, unapologetically openhearted rendition of Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia Hymn” was likewise rousing.
The one misstep of the evening was “We Two,” a piece Cantus commissioned from Steven Sametz, setting love poetry by Walt Whitman. The overly dense setting obscured rather than illuminated the celebratory verses.
Singing in various languages — English, Latin, German, Norwegian, Russian — Cantus never became academic in its performance. From its frequently performed “Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell to an over-the-top arrangement of the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the group displayed a real sense of wit and joy.