REVIEW: Cantus delivers moving musical meditation

By Rob Hubbard – Pioneer Press (St. Paul) – December 13, 2012

While the nine-man vocal group Cantus sings splendidly, its concerts can sometimes seem programmed like a potluck, one piece of music having little in common with the next.

But apply a solid framework to its music-mining mission and Cantus can create some extraordinary programs. That’s the case with the latest incarnation of “Christmas with Cantus,” which made its maiden voyage at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church midday Thursday, Dec. 13. It’s a modern American update of England’s “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” with songs, poetry and prose that adhere to the themes of each lesson. And it’s one of the most rewarding things that Cantus has ever created.

It helps to have a collaborator like the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Readings from its latest book, “Lessons for Our Time,” allow everyone from Walt Whitman and Robert Frost to contemporary poets Linda Gregg and Mary Oliver to chime in with words on the chosen themes, and Cantus sings beneath and between them. Yes, there are songs and carols of Christmas, but the central focus is contemplating various aspects of the Christmas story and what they mean for your own life.

Each of the nine combinations of poetry and music has a name. “Hope and Gifts” employs Twin Cities composer Abbie Betinis’ “Lumen,” in which the singers pass the melody one to another like the light in the lyrics. For “The Return,” Louis Jenkins’ prose poem, “Belief,” proves a perfect prelude to a gentle barbershop-flavored version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” And “A Message for All to Hear” features a mesmerizing version of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Would You Harbor Me?” that sounds like a passing pilgrimage, building in urgency, dissipating with distance.

But the most moving segment is a quartet of works on motherhood that features poetry of Connie Wanek and an evocative excerpt from Patricia MacLachlan’s “Sarah, Plain and Tall” alongside two beautifully sung pieces: the Welsh lullaby, “Suo Gan,” and Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” Perhaps because it treated its topic in such a concrete, non-abstract manner, it proved a welcome grounding device. It offered the concert’s most convincing argument for finding the divine in the commonplace, and Cantus made it sound heavenly.