REVIEW: Cantus wraps songs and stories into captivating package

by Rob Hubbard, Special to the Pioneer Press – December 13, 2017

While Christmas stories abound via DVD and streaming services, special rewards can be found in a far more personal affair: reading one aloud from a book.

Before you dismiss this as some archaic practice whose time has passed, consider attending one of this year’s “Christmas with Cantus” concerts.

In the most inspired holiday offering the eight-man vocal group has presented since it helped create the absorbing World War I drama “All is Calm” with Theatre Latte Da last decade, Cantus has chosen to build its Christmas program around three popular stories of the season — Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” O. Henry’s “The Gift the Magi” and Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — segueing from song to text and back over the course of two captivating hours.

Instead of embracing some vague emanation of holiday nostalgia, the group has chosen three very specific stories, combining them with 16 finely crafted a cappella songs of the season. The result might be the ideal confluence of nostalgic and new for your holiday arts imbibing.

It’s already been performed in eight cities from coast to coast over the past two weeks, so it was a polished presentation by the time it made its Twin Cities debut at Wayzata’s St. Bartholomew Catholic Church on Tuesday evening. Strong both technically and emotionally, it warmed the heart and pleased the ears.

Before you say, “ ‘A Christmas Carol’… again?” consider this: While the story has been adapted to death, when was the last time you read Charles Dickens’ original novella, if ever?

The author was one of the English language’s consummate masters of colorful description and you lose that in a film or stage production. But Cantus has tastefully edited his story down to eight involving segments, one for each of the eight singers, the music setting scenes and evoking moods.

Samuel Green set a high theatrical bar in his reading of the opening pages, his deep, expressive voice making Marley’s ghost particularly chilling before Adam Fieldson offered a bright contrast as both the surly Mrs. Cratchit and Scrooge’s optimistic nephew.

While the music bounced about in tenor and time of origin, it was best when it flawlessly framed the action, as during an increasingly inebriated front stoop serenade, “Wassail,” and Ola Gjello’s sad, solemn “Ubi Caritas,” sung by the graveside of Tiny Tim in the visions of Christmas Yet to Come. And one of those many adaptations came into play with a finale of “Thankful Heart” from “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” wrapping the final verse in warm, comforting layers of harmony.

The rest of the concert never reached those heights, although it was a joy to revisit “The Gift of the Magi” and have it provide a fine framework for lovely arrangements of “Noel Nouvelet,” “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”

But Cantus member Chris Foss’ new setting of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was less successful, robbing the original poem of its galloping rhythm and seemingly meandering in search of a melody, although it showed potential in summoning up blowing leaves and encircling smoke.

Yet all came to a calming conclusion with an encore of what was once considered Cantus’ theme song, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” It’s the first time I’ve heard the group sing it since it reduced its numbers from nine to eight, and what it may have lost in thicker harmonic texture it made up for in intimate encounters with individual voices.

Read this review on the Pioneer Press’ webpage HERE.