Cantus has a knack for combining the beautiful, the heartfelt, and the humorous into an experience that is accessible and entertaining. Friday night’s grab-bag concert (the final one of their 2006-2007 season) at Westminster Presbyterian married an erudite first half and soulful variety show in the second half with a sense of cohesion.
Cantus opened with “A Sound Like This,” a long-form work commissioned from Minneapolis composer Edie Hill. Based on texts by Kabir urging us to listen to the universal music within, Hill’s mystical piece could only be given justice by a group of this caliber. After reading the source material in turn, the singers began the piece in whispers and hissing like wind whipping through pine trees. The meditative drones and very close harmonies were so perfectly in tune the room was crackling with the energy of the sound. Particularly satisfying was the powerfully rhythmic third movement illustrating the phrase “listen friend, this body is a dulcimer,” which explored the body’s resonance not just vocally, but through intricate patterns of clapping, slapping of thighs and chest, and stomping of feet.
Second on the program was the world premiere of Steven Sametz’s “We Two,” which strings together fragments of Walt Whitman poems. It struck me as appropriately male, reflecting all the longing and aching of the text, exploration of the shadings of male vocal timbers through very close harmonies and range of force, and lending a sense of tender masculinity throughout.
After a short intermission, the concert resumed with selections chosen by the singers of Cantus rather than by its artistic director. Leaving programming to performers runs the risk of being enormously satisfying to them but a disappointing and incoherent jumble to the audience. However, it worked—perhaps because of the American framework or the tailor-made arrangements, or simply because of their commitment to each piece.
Cantus gave Bernstein’s “New York, New York” appropriately campy stage antics, as though they were tourists in that “helluva town,” riding subways, reading guidebooks, taking photos in front of landmarks (in this case, the audience).
Judging by the wild applause, cheers, and whistles that erupted, the audience favorite was a barbershop quartet arrangement of “Basin Street Blues.” Usually I find barbershop either excessively nostalgic or cheesy, but this was all style and polish, seductive and smooth. You could hear a pin drop in the audience.
Cantus also performed Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer;” “When I Fall in Love” as arranged by singer Gary Ruschman; an exquisite rendition of David Hurd’s “Love Bade Me Welcome,” rearranged by the composer for Cantus; the world premiere of an original pop tune written for Cantus by Minneapolis singer/songwriter Chris Koza; a unison setting of the African-American spiritual “He Never Said a Mumberlin’ Word;” and a cleverly staged “It Ain’t Necessarily So” taken completely out of its Porgy and Bess context. The concert closed with another audience hit, “Somebody’s Prayin’,” in a sweet and soulful gospel arrangement by one of the group’s tenors, E. Mani Cadet. He introduced his selection with his personal story of looking through the rubble on 9/11 for his wife, who worked in the only building left standing at Ground Zero. He said only got through the day by thinking that someone out there was praying for him.
Bass Tim Takach recognized the departure of Cantus’s executive director, Michael Hanawalt, who is going back to school for choral conducting, by saying, “For years you got to see his beaming face singing up here with us, but maybe in a few years you can see his backside.”
The men returned to give the encore demanded by the audience and sang “There Is Sweet Music Here.” What a great start to the weekend.