Cantus Vocal Ensemble Wed, 31 Oct 2018 15:32:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Cantus premieres new work by Libby Larsen, YOU Tue, 02 Oct 2018 15:56:19 +0000 This September, Cantus premiered a brand new work from composer Libby Larsen at Penn State! The multi-movement work was commissioned for Cantus by Music Accord, a commissioning consortium of classical music’s top presenting organizations, and appears on Cantus’ program Alone Together. 


In his landmark book, Keeping Together in Time, William McNeill convincingly states that its our natural condition, as humans, to create and sustain human community. We share feelings, we keep together in time through coordinated movements, like dancing, making music, marching, group exercising, attending community events, celebrating birthdays and holidays, we create groups, clubs, political parties, religious affiliations… All these human efforts, and more, are powerful forces in holding us together.

Yet, we are alone, ultimately, living the paradox of being alone together. YOU – is a musical essay on the human condition of being alone together. It’s about us and we are its theme. YOU are the subject and recipient of its message. Cantus is our essay’s narrator. For the libretto, I identified nine words which describe being alive – You, here, now, who, are, where, know, need, love – and used them to frame questions about being human: Am I fated?; What is my meaning?; I need!; Am I safe?; Am I secure?; What is the center of my spirit? Then, drawing on poetry of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay as muses for these questions (Dickinson’s You cannot put a Fire out – fate, I’m Nobody – Who are You? – meaning, Wild Nights! – need; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s First Fig and Thursday – security), I created a loose narrative for my essay – I am unconditionally alive…I feel out of control…Who am I?…I need physical human contact…I need security…what is security?…I am security. 

I am so grateful to Music Accord for providing the opportunity to partner with the members of Cantus in the process of creating this new work. It has been a rich and rewarding fabric of creativity!

–Libby Larsen, 2018

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REVIEW: Cantus’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ guaranteed to raise a smile (Also: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’!) Mon, 10 Sep 2018 17:52:15 +0000 by Rob Hubbard, Special to the Pioneer Press – June 4, 2017

It was 50 years ago this week, “Sgt. Pepper” made our parents freak. The Beatles released an album that redefined the parameters of pop, keeping the band’s widely admired way with songcraft but enhancing it with all sorts of unexpected sonic experiments and making it relatively clear that hallucinogenics had found their way to London.

At first blush, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” might not seem an ideal fit for a Twin Cities-based all-male classical vocal ensemble with a relatively squeaky-clean image. But Cantus has chosen to mark the 50th anniversary of the album’s release by making it the centerpiece of its annual “Covers” concerts, a year after giving the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” the same 50th-anniversary treatment.

While “Pet Sounds” was quite the elaborate studio creation, “Sgt. Pepper” is even more challenging to replicate, as the Beatles and producer George Martin let their creative juices run wild at London’s Abbey Road Studios. But Cantus has wisely chosen not to imitate but rather to reimagine that 1967 masterpiece.

And the result might be the most satisfying Cantus “Covers” concert yet. Maintaining the spirit of the originals yet placing their own interpretive stamp upon the songs, the eight-man ensemble and a skilled trio of instrumentalists made Saturday’s performance at Minneapolis’ Cowles Center both an eloquent tribute to the Beatles’ brilliance and a sweet showcase for their own voices and arranging skills.

While “Sgt. Pepper” provides the meat of the program, it’s framed by more recent fare, starting with an absorbing a cappella opening of Sara Bareilles’ “Kaleidoscope Heart” segueing into a primal, percussive take on Feist’s “The Bad in Each Other” and a deliciously bouncy version of Vulfpeck’s “Animal Spirits.”

But the covers grew increasingly creative when “Sgt. Pepper” started, tenor Adam Fieldson launching into the first of several sweet, high leads on the title track before the group turned “She’s Leaving Home” into a spine-tingling a cappella dreamscape. “Within You, Without You” became a kind of confluence of West Asian wail and Gregorian chant, and “Lovely Rita” morphed into Memphis funk. Not that every arrangement was inspired: Tempos were slowed and edges buffed off of “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole,” while “When I’m 64” had all its fun subtracted.

When Cantus reshaped the opening of “A Day in the Life” into something genuinely chilling — Zachary Colby’s high tenor soaring above the group’s darkly textured a cappella harmonies — I had high hopes that they would make it into the miniature epic it felt like the first time the album found my ears in childhood. Unfortunately, the concluding section never embraced the chaotic crescendo of the original, petering out when it could have blown out the back doors.

Finishing with a few other covers of recent radio hits might have seemed anticlimactic after the album was done, but, instead, the best performance of the night came on its heels: Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” was transformed from a relatively minimalist synth-pop tune into an urgently powerful piece of vintage soul, David Geist channeling Teddy Pendergrass on his sweaty lead vocal.

And my thirst for the epic was satisfied by the encore: A wonderful version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” on which Colby not only did Freddie Mercury’s vocal lines justice but even pushed them up into the stratosphere. It was quite the ambitious encore, and a very fun finale.

Read this review on the Pioneer Press’ webpage HERE.

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REVIEW: Cantus wraps songs and stories into captivating package Mon, 10 Sep 2018 17:48:02 +0000 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.

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REVIEW: Cantus delivers ‘totally successful’ chamber concert with music inspired by travel Mon, 10 Sep 2018 17:42:26 +0000 by Terry Blain, Special to the Star Tribune – July 20, 2017

Experimentation was in the air Wednesday evening at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.

In a new venue, at a time of year when regular season concerts are usually over, Twin Cities male vocal ensemble Cantus launched a new initiative — its first “summer chamber music concert” — to a packed audience.

At the heart of the program was a performance of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel,” a cycle of nine songs originally written for solo baritone.

There are a couple of baritones in the Cantus lineup, but each member of the eight-member ensemble was allotted a song, regardless of vocal range. Adam Fieldson’s emotional account of “Whither Must I Wander” particularly tugged the heartstrings. Poised yet vulnerable, Fieldson distilled an aching sense of loss and isolation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s lines, recollecting “kind folks of old” who “come again no more.”

The novel idea of using eight different singers to perform Vaughan Williams’ cycle proved more than novelty.

The range of voices heard — from Zachary Colby’s plangent high tenor in “Youth and Love” to bass Samuel Green’s reassuringly doughty “Bright is the Ring of Words” — added individuality to the experiences described in Stevenson’s poems, and by Vaughan Williams’ music.

It also freshened the audience’s attention from number to number. Each song had a different tale to tell, and the process of listening was fascinatingly enhanced by having a different singer tell it.

Among a clutch of excellent individual performances, tenor Jacob Christopher’s rapt, heart-aching account of “The Infinite Shining Heavens” stood out for its tonal sweetness and purity of diction.

Baritone Matthew Goinz spent most of the cycle accompanying his fellow singers in exemplary fashion on piano, before accompanying himself in the moving epilogue. Is there no end to the man’s talent?

Bookending the Vaughan Williams songs, in a recital lasting an hour without intermission, were two groups of pieces reflecting further on the theme of travel.

Music by Alfvén, Srebotnjak, Rangström and Rachmaninoff were included, in configurations ranging from all eight singers to a single soloist.

The lyrics conjured hills, mountains and earth’s empty places, providing solace for the weary.

Beethoven’s jocular “Farewell Song,” though, brought a welcome shot of levity. Singers Chris Foss, Colby, and Goinz relished the opportunity to ham it up, delighting the audience with their tongue-in-cheek dance moves.

Further joshing enlivened the droll travelogue of “Kansas Highway Sky,” while the encore — a Korean folk melody — was pitch-perfect in its gentle sense of leave-taking.

As a venture into a new format, the evening was totally successful for Cantus. More summer chamber music programs are eagerly awaited.

Read this review on the Star Tribune’s webpage HERE.

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REVIEW: Cantus vocal ensemble opens season with vocal and mental clarity Mon, 10 Sep 2018 17:37:11 +0000 by Terry Blain, Special to the Star Tribune – October 13, 2017

The Irish novelist James Joyce called them “epiphanies” — moments in life when something previously hidden becomes visible, or when we see it in a new, revelatory way.

These Joycean moments were examined Thursday evening in “Discovery of Sight,” the opening concert of Twin Cities vocal ensemble Cantus’ 2017-18 schedule.

Cantus recently returned from a recital tour of China, Taiwan and South Korea. It clearly left the group in prime technical condition. Hugo Alfvén’s “Aftonen” (“Evening”), was hummed with smoothly blended harmonies, distilling a placid, consoling sense of twilight in the composer’s native Sweden. And fireflies in the Japanese night, “their rear ends sparkling in the dark,” inhabited the flickering shadows of “Hotaru Koi,” a Japanese children’s song. The gentle pulse of nocturnal things was evocatively summoned by Cantus’ thrumming performance.

Monotony was an occasional danger in the program’s first nine pieces, most of which proceeded at a moderate, dreamy tempo.

Kenneth Jennings’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” was a partial exception. Here, the crushed harmonies and sudden roiling crescendos in Jennings’ setting of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem elicited a sense of drama generally missing in the recital’s first half.

Part two had more variety of mood and inflection. Brightly optimistic arrangements of “Simple Gifts” and “Morning Has Broken” showcased the group’s knack for making hackneyed tunes sound new — and potentially hokey sentiments seem genuine.

A certain quirkiness characterized Gabriel Kahane’s “Coffee With Borges,” a brand-new work composed especially for Cantus. Whooping glissandos caricaturing the “blah, blah, blah” of Shakespearean rhetoric were executed with relish by the eight singers.

Overall, Kahane’s piece meandered a little structurally, not quite clinching its central proposition that there are ways of seeing and experiencing the world when eyesight is absent.

The truest moments of Joycean epiphany came late in the recital, in bubbling gospel arrangements by Cantus alumnus Paul John Rudoi and 20th-century composer Jester Hairston.

Rudoi’s take on “Yonder Come Day” fastened on the piece’s infectiously vibrant rhythms, underpinned by baritone Matthew Goinz’s percussion shaker and a clap-along contribution by singers and audience. Hairston’s “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’ ” had a similarly tingling effect. Where some of the program’s earlier music set poetry that seemed abstruse and wishy-washy, a sense of fresh, urgent revelation gleamed with startling clarity in these two spirituals.

In Cantus’ joyful, unpretentious performances, they cut directly to the quick of the evening’s message — that even in a world we habitually view through dark lenses, moments of brilliant illumination are possible, some of them mediated by music.

Read this review on the Star Tribune’s webpage HERE.

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REVIEW: Cantus strikes mournful note with concert of songs for our fragile planet Mon, 10 Sep 2018 17:31:12 +0000 by Terry Blain, Special to the Star Tribune – April 13, 2018

International news outlets ran a story Thursday about a young sperm whale that washed up dead on the coast of Spain in February. The creature had swallowed more than 60 pounds of plastic waste, fish netting and garbage bags, almost certainly causing its death.

The same day news broke about the whale, Twin Cities vocal ensemble Cantus launched “For the Beauty of the Earth,” its latest themed program. The juxtaposition of these two events was painfully appropriate.

And while classical music probably does little to address environmental issues, “For the Beauty of the Earth” at least tried.

The concert started with the fragility of a single voice, that of tenor Paul Scholtz.

His sweet, poignant leadoff to the hymn-tune “For the Beauty of the Earth” was gradually draped with tentative harmonies — as if beauty itself was somehow a provisional, passing entity.

A similar feeling of time suspended pervaded Hugo Alfven’s “Aftonen” (“Evening”), with its seemingly idyllic vision of valleys, green hills and shepherds’ lullabies. The blending of the eight male voices was warmly euphonious, if somehow not entirely reassuring.

There were lighter moments among the program’s ecologically themed selections. “El Grillo” (“The Cricket”), a song by French Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez, thrummed with the chattering rhythms of the busy insect that “sings out of love.”

And in the neat mash-up of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” with the Tune-Yards’ “Water Fountain,” Mitchell’s wry couplets drew laughter from the audience — not to mention a teasing signoff from baritone David Geist.

Another delight was Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water,” a throwback to the days of happily crooning cowboys. Baritone Matthew Goinz tapped coconut shells to re-create the hoofbeat rhythms of the Western ballad. Roy Ringwald’s arrangement glowed with affectionate nostalgia.

Present realities, though, were the evening’s main focus — especially in “N’ap debat” (“We’re Hangin’ On), composer Sydney Guillaume’s musical response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. To a tribal drumbeat, Guillaume’s piece harnessed the pulses of ritual chanting to a Creole text expressing the resilience of Haitians — “I am a bent reed that does not break” — at a time of natural disaster.

The recital ended with Woody Guthrie’s visionary ballad “This Land Is Your Land,” normally a stirring paean to America’s open spaces, its “sparkling sands” and “golden valley.” Context changes things, however, and the clear message of this Cantus program was that the American landscape is by no means as sparkling or as golden as it used to be. So Guthrie’s song seemed sadder than originally intended, as did the encore “What a Wonderful World.”

Cantus’ performance of the Louis Armstrong standard was beautifully balanced between the eight voices, and full of poetic sensitivity. But how much longer can “wonderful” last, on a planet where a whale chokes to death on human garbage?

Read the review on the Star Tribune’s webpage HERE.

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REVIEW: Cantus lets solo singers shine in folky summer concert Mon, 10 Sep 2018 17:26:25 +0000 by Terry Blain, Special to the Star Tribune – July 18, 2018

Not many concerts begin with a tenor gazing pensively at the inside of a piano, then singing into it. Zachary Colby’s strange behavior did have a purpose, however.

In the gaps between phrases of “Kulning,” the Scandinavian herding song that opened Cantus’ Tuesday morning recital at Westminster Presbyterian Church, you could hear the taut piano strings rustle and hum sympathetically as Colby’s breath vibrated over them. It was like a cool breeze wafting on a mountaintop. The sense of broad space opening around the listener was further amplified when Colby’s co-singers added softly swirling harmonies from the rear and sides of the wood-paneled auditorium.

The Scandinavian cow song proved an atmospheric tone-setter for “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” a program examining the potent influence of folk music in shaping our musical consciousness.

Seven of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” formed the backbone of this hourlong recital, performed without intermission. Some of Copland’s wonderful settings were sung in versions for the whole ensemble, per the usual Cantus fashion. Others, though, provided an opportunity for individual members to strut their solo paces.

Bass Chris Foss’ cheeky, mischievous account of “The Dodger,” pointedly sung and abetted by clever facial acting, set the bar high.

Foss’ fellow bass Samuel Green proceeded to comfortably clear it, in an animated romp through “I Bought Me a Cat,” complete with farmyard grunts and animal imitations.

Then there were quieter, more reflective moments. Baritone David Geist sang a movingly dignified “At the River,” while a six-voice version of “Long Time Ago” mined a soothing seam of gentle nostalgia.

Folk songs from outside the American tradition were also featured. “Kalinka” (“Snowberry”), from Russia, sported an ebullient solo from tenor Jacob Christopher, with a dizzy-making accelerando from the ensemble at its spinning climax.

A splendidly over-the-top rendition of the Cesare Andrea Bixio standard “Mamma” brought Cantus’ own version of the Three Tenors into the spotlight. Colby and Christopher did the initial jockeying for tenorial position. Both were arguably outdone, though, by the spectacular interventions of Adam Fieldson, ardently pinging out his top notes in classic “can belto” fashion.

Fieldson is one of two Cantus members leaving the group after this week’s concerts. The other is baritone Matthew Goinz, who also played most of the piano accompaniments. The pair’s final huzzah as Cantus members came via the ensemble’s brilliantly articulated account of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” which ended the recital. Buoyant, joyful, pleasingly precise and brimming with dynamic detail, it had all the qualities that make Cantus one of the most reliably insightful and entertaining groups on the Minnesota classical circuit.

In this cleverly programmed, stimulating recital, Cantus cleared space for shared tunes and memories — and for the musical past to cast a genial, civilizing influence on our fractured present.

Read this review on the Star Tribune’s webpage HERE.

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REVIEW: Cantus: The exquisite feel-good chorus maneuvered the Basilica acoustics Mon, 10 Sep 2018 17:17:41 +0000 by David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic, The Inquirer

The world is full of great touring choral ensembles, and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul has been filling a significant niche by importing them – with a catch. Though the Basilica is one of the most beautiful public interiors in Philadelphia, the acoustics are more akin to 30th Street Station. What to do?

The season opener on Saturday was the all-male, eight-voice, genre-crossing Cantus – a clean-cut ensemble from the Midwest that is said to eat cathedral acoustics for breakfast. And that, amazingly, turned out to be true. The solution: unforced but intensely focused singing. Greater quantities of sound would’ve just ricocheted around the space, while smaller, low-vibrato, tightly blended voices, meticulously balanced with subtle treble highlights from high-range tenors came through with a clarity that I’ve never experienced there.

The title of the concert was Discovery of Sight, a poetic concept rich in visual imagery with music by a range of composers that might not have worked under less carefully curated circumstances, and perhaps the precedent of Chanticleer (which arrives at the Basilica next April 28). Heavyweight moderns such as Gabriel Kahane, middleweight figures such as Einojuhani Rautavaara and Eric Whitacre, lesser-known but thoroughly welcomed names such as Jean Émile Paul Cras, and folk songs (from American to Japanese) flowed together, the main uniting factor being that high-personality trademark sound.

However exquisite, the sound was successfully altered for the more unvarnished harmonies of Schubert’s “Wie schön bist du” (probably written for an amateur singing society) as well as for the harmonic sophistication of Richard Strauss’ “Ein Licht im Traum.” All Cantus members are credible soloists, which was good for incidental solos and drone effects that harmonically anchored any number of passages. They sing rhythm, not emphatically, but enough to suggest, in the spirituals at the end, that they have a bit of doo-wop in their veins. The only performance that had less than 100 percent clarity was Kahane’s “Coffee With Borges,” which has musical gestures leaping out in many different directions (interesting!) but didn’t have the most intuitive word settings.

Words were a big part of the concert, maybe too much so. The music may well have been chosen partly on the basis of the texts by Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, and T.S. Eliot. Composer Rautavaara wasn’t at his best with Eliot texts, though the words were set with sensitivity. Traditional selections such as “Simple Gifts” and “Morning Has Broken” might seem like a step down from the rest of the program were it not for the arrangement with the kind of harmonic ambiguity that made phrases land in unexpected but pleasant places.

Every few songs, though, came a homily of sorts from a different Cantus member, some of them introductions to the music, others with heady quotations by the likes of Carl Sagan, explanations of how eyesight works and a sprinkling of nondenominational bromides that wouldn’t be out of place in TED Talks. But for listeners who are truly in the thick of life-changing issues, talk is a mere prescription while music is the remedy.

Read review on The Inquirer’s webpage HERE.

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