Cantus' intimacy is rewarding in sacred music sampler
Cantus is all about intimacy. The vocal ensemble's nine men shape their musical collaborations through intense eye contact, seemingly searing the music into one another's souls while singing. It can be disarming for an audience, but intimacy has its rewards, as evidenced by the group's performance at Minneapolis' Westminster Presbyterian Church on Friday morning.

It was the first of five concerts the group will present that are built around sacred music from a variety of European and American traditions. And it had some great moments of harmonic splendor, although the order of the works caused the energy to peak at mid-concert. Nevertheless, it's a fine example of the group's increasingly well-honed skills.

Those came through soft and clear on 20th-century Finn Leevi Madetoja's "Die Profundis," which created four very different moods, shifting from sad solemnity to vibrant celebration in short order. Of similar vintage was a work by Russia's Pavel Chesnokov that allowed the group's basses to shake the floorboards before Zoltan Kodaly's "Esti Dal" concluded the European set. It's a prayer tinged with resignation, and Paul Rudoi delivered its solo lines in Hungarian with lovely simplicity while looking upward through one of Westminster's stained-glass windows.

For the American fare, the men of Cantus said in introductions they found many of the songs several incarnations down the line from their original forms. For instance, "There's a Meeting Here Tonight" sounded very much like a 1950's Greenwich Village folk scare take on the old spiritual. But that connection benefited "Run On," for tenor Gary Ruschman captured the spirit of the version once plied by a denizen of that scene, Odetta. Its sanctified scolding brought a welcome edge to the program and proved a soulful highlight, as did a beautiful arrangement of "Simple Gifts" created for the group by Stephen Caracciolo.

Yet, the concert suffered by concluding with four solemn songs in a row, petering out with Timothy Takach's dirge-like arrangement of "Keep Your Lamps." However, an encore of Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Wanting Memories" brought an upbeat ending, demonstrating why it's become a Cantus signature song.

Rob Hubbard, St. Paul Pioneer Press
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