REVIEW: Looking for warmth and nostalgia? Cantus’ Christmas program is for you

By Rob Hubbard – Special to the Pioneer Press – December 12, 2016

There’s an increasingly prominent cultural narrative of recent years that Christmas is a time of stress. Be it due to overpacked to-do lists, competitive decorating, strained family dynamics or reflection upon losses, it’s a holiday that seems to inspire more dread than joy for a lot of people.

To the rescue comes Cantus, the Minneapolis-based vocal group of increasing national renown. Now reduced to eight voices from its longtime total of nine, the all-male ensemble seeks to soothe with its latest incarnation of “Christmas with Cantus.” Yes, the program still features an occasional visit to another language, culture or century long past, but this is the group’s most warm and nostalgic Christmas program of recent years, one with a soft touch and a kind of Norman Rockwell aesthetic.

It eschews being thought-provoking or innovative in favor of an affectionate embrace of the past, both the songs and the mini-speeches introducing them leaning upon “tradition” and sepia-toned family gatherings. While it might be the safest Cantus holiday program in several years, it’s also very well-executed, or at least it was at Wayzata’s St. Bartholomew Catholic Church on Sunday afternoon. If wishing to wrap yourself in a warm blanket of harmony and happy memories, consider a visit to one of the group’s seven remaining concerts spread across the Twin Cities area over the next week-and-a-half.

There, you’ll find lovely arrangements of familiar songs evoking celebratory scenarios. Like a subtle nod to seasonal melancholy on a very high-tenor-forward “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” perhaps inspired by Cantus’ recent collaboration with San Francisco’s Chanticleer, a group known for pushing the upper end of the male vocal register. Or a doo-wop “White Christmas” from the Drifters’ catalog on which the basses evoked the velvety tones of Bing Crosby before new tenor Jacob Christopher sent things soaring.

But I found that the best moments of Sunday’s concert came on unfamiliar fare. Such as when Samuel Green stood in for the angel Gabriel on Pavel Chesnokov’s “Sovet Prevechniy (The Eternal Counsel)” or full, florid harmonies filled Jennifer Higdon’s “A Quiet Moment.” While singing “Silent Night” in three languages simultaneously didn’t work as well, the arrangement of it that former Cantus member Erick Lichte created for Theater Latte Da’s annual production of “All is Calm” (about the World War I Christmas truce) brought chills with its funereal foreshadowing.

If it’s comfort you seek, signature songs appeared on either side of intermission, Ysaye Barnwell’s “Wanting Memories” giving way to the work of pure beauty that helped bring Cantus together back at Northfield’s St. Olaf College in the ‘90s, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” Be assured that both sounded as lovely with eight voices as they did with nine. Similarly sweet and soothing was an arrangement by another Cantus alum, Aaron Humble, of “Still, Still, Still” that featured a very nice lead by new member David Geist.

While there are plenty of opportunities to embrace the Midwest choral tradition that spawned this ensemble, there are also nods to the barbershop style on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and the vintage harmonies of the Lettermen and Sandpipers on “The Christmas Song.” Yes, there are carols of earlier eras, but this is a program heavy on 20th-century American traditions, encouraging you to not make the holiday so heavy.