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February 14, 2008

Cantus debut with heartfelt interpretations

Houston Chronicle (TX):

All aspiring American male vocal ensembles live under the shadow of San Francisco's Chanticleer and its distinctive sound and artistic profile. But Cantus, a Minneapolis-St. Paul ensemble with a more traditional character, has made a very nice career for itself since its founding in 1995 at Minnesota's St. Olaf College (a hotbed of choral singing).

The reasons are ample, as the nine members showed Tuesday at Rice University in their debut on the Houston Friends of Music chamber series. Impeccable singing, an engaging stage personality and heartfelt interpretations added up to a pleasurable evening that, at the end, had even white-haired ladies clapping along to the group's version of Curtis Mayfield's It's Alright.

The sound was traditional male, forgoing the countertenors and male sopranos that give Chanticleer its unusual timbre. The Cantus sound had elements of the King's Singers style but was more robust and a little less pure than the English ensemble. Cantus astutely organized what otherwise would be a typical potpourri program. The first half, Into Temptation, contained multiple looks at the tension between good and evil.

It began with a subtly modern treatment of a Gregorian chant setting of The Lord's Prayer (swelling to tense moments at the plea for help when facing temptation). Bob Chilcott's 5 Ways to Kill a Man and the American folk song On the Banks of the Ohio dealt with the darkness of murder. Formal English choral music, borrowings from other American folk music and so on added musical and philosophical variety.

The end of the half had a distinct feminist slant. In The 23rd Psalm, a work dedicated to his mother, Bobby McFerrin made the nurturing God into a female, a twist of unorthodox thinking that undoubtedly would delight radical Christian feminists. Franz Biebl's familiar Ave Maria, popularized by Chanticleer, was an invocation to the Virgin Mary.

The post-intermission half reached its peak fairly early with Last Letter Home, an elegant, haunting setting of a letter from a soldier who died in Iraq. Leo Hoiby treated the straightforward, emotionally secure prose of Army Pfc. Jesse A. Givens with respect and a carefully intensifying patina of dissonance when needed. In Givens' simple honoring of his family members lay a provocative charge to stop and think. The rest of the half ranged from arrangements of world music, a spiritual, an Appalachian song and so forth.

The Cantus members conveyed every text with diction that was a triumphant assertion that it is possible to sing in English and have the audience understand the words. It seemed like they poured their musical hearts into every work they performed, even if that meant they occasionally pressed a little too hard in reaching out to the audience. At the end, I almost was consumed by an urge to run out to the lobby to buy those CDs that, a bass humorously noted, the members would be happy to sign afterwards.

Posted by acapnews at February 14, 2008 8:43 PM

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