By Rob Hubbard – Pioneer Press – October 3, 2016
“There’s a meeting here tonight.” So sang Cantus from the stage of Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall on Monday evening. And what a rare meeting it was, as the Twin Cities group widely regarded as America’s second-best male vocal ensemble gathered with the consensus choice for the best, San Francisco’s Chanticleer. Performing both separately and together, the groups seemed to send a sellout crowd of over 2,100 into a state of euphoria that likely lasted well into Tuesday morning.
It was Chanticleer that first inspired the formation of Cantus at Northfield’s St. Olaf College, where nine guys dreamed of making a living out of singing vocal music. They’ve accomplished that, along with having an enthusiastic local following and an exhausting travel schedule, just like their Bay Area comrades. If anyone imagined this as some sort of battle of the bands, there was way too much mutual admiration in this collaboration for that.
A big part of what made this such a rewarding performance was the stylistic contrast between the two groups. Cantus recently reduced its numbers to eight, while Chanticleer consists of 12 men, six of them singing in the countertenor range. So they have a fuller sound and climb considerably higher up the scale than Cantus. This made for a spine-tingling dichotomy between ethereal Chanticleer and earthy Cantus when they stood across the stage from one another, trading antiphonal phrases and fugues on the liturgical music by Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli that opened the concert’s second half.
By that time, the groups had finished trading three-song mini-sets. Chanticleer started the evening with 16th-century songs both sacred and romantic before Cantus responded with three contemporary works, including the premiere of a song by Jeff Beal (composer of the soundtrack for the TV series “House of Cards”) that set a poem written in a prisoner-of-war’s cell and brought chills with both text and harmonic textures.
Chanticleer responded with three Russian songs, including an arrangement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” that provided a fine showcase for the heavenly countertenor voice of Cortez Mitchell but never achieved the sad, ghostly quality within the work. Far more haunting was Cantus’ interpretation of Christine Donkin’s “In Flanders Fields.” And the audience was enraptured when the two ensembles combined for a 20-voice version of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” a signature song for both.
Yet far more exhilarating for me was the collaborative collection of four pieces that opened the second half. During the Gabrieli, it became clear that the tux-clad Chanticleer is the more stately and refined ensemble, customarily standing still and singing outward, while Cantus thrives on physical interaction, cuing one another with eye contact while bobbing and swaying. After a breathtakingly beautiful version of Stephen Paulus’ “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” the music remained hypnotic on Moses Hogan’s arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River.”
Hogan’s arrangements clearly provided common ground within the combined ensemble, as his “Ride the Chariot” closed the program before an exhilarating encore of “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace” and “Good News, Chariot’s Comin’.” This may have been the Twin Cities area’s quintessential celebration of the human voice this year, and the choral-crazy crowd sent the 20 men off by raising their own voices in cheers and whoops akin to what might have been found across downtown Minneapolis at the Vikings game.