REVIEW: Theme was death, but evening with Cantus anything but grim

By Rob Hubbard – Pioneer Press (St. Paul) – October 26, 2012

There’s an exchange in Woody Allen’s film “Annie Hall” in which the titular character complains that her partner only gives her books with the word “death,” in the title, and he replies, “It’s an important issue.”

It is, indeed. And the nine-man vocal group Cantus is singing a lot about it during its autumn program, “When Twilight Falls.” That might sound as if it would make for a dreary evening, but the ensemble sculpts its harmonies so well and delivers each work with such warm and open hearts that the concert can transport you to a better place.

There was beauty to be found throughout the group’s season-opening performance at Minneapolis’ Cowles Center on Thursday, Oct. 25, as songs of war both triumphant and mournful segued into peaceful contemplations of the great beyond.

Like many Cantus concerts, it was a stylistic smorgasbord — from Gregorian chant to Sacred Harp to folk songs of Lithuania and Scotland to U2 and Brandi Carlile — but it held together well under the overarching theme of the end of the day and the end of life.

While the first half sometimes seemed a bit scattershot — Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers” and Carlile’s “Shadow on the Wall” felt out of place — two songs of sleep made the set a success: U2′s “MLK” (with Aaron Humble’s sweet tenor soaring above a drone of basses and baritones) and Paul Nelson’s soothing setting of James Agee’s poem, “A Lullaby.”

The concert’s second half seemed far more focused. Cantus tenor Paul Rudoi used the words of 13th-century Persian poet Rumi to create a fine new work given its premiere, “Song of Sea and Sky.” And Hall Johnson’s “Ain’ Got Time to Die” was the best I’ve heard the group capture the spirit and rhythms of traditional African-American gospel.

As appropriate for a death-oriented program, it didn’t surge to a climax as much as resolve in a peaceful place with a closing triptych offering three heavenly perspectives: Gregorian chant modernized marvelously by Cole Thomason-Redus, a “Northport” hymn and Diane Loomer’s lovely arrangement of “Goin’ Home,” a hymn adapted from Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony in which tenor Shahzore Shah sent the audience home with a gentle solo. It underlined the emphasis upon death as a source of comfort and rest, and Cantus sounded like the ideal ensemble to sing you toward the light.