Cantus’s uneven material, presentation make for mixed Boston debut

April 4, 2019 at 11:57 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Cantus performed Wednesday night at Pickman Hall

Cantus performed Wednesday night at Pickman Hall.

Cantus, the Minneapolis-based men’s choir, made their Boston debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall. Their program, presented by the Celebrity Series, was titled “Alone Together.” Covering a range of styles – from classical to pop and Broadway – it focused on the theme of “technology and connection in [the] modern world.” At the very least, it showcased an ensemble of impressive musical sensibilities.

Comprised of four tenors, two baritones, and two basses, Cantus sang with a rich timbral blend. This resulted in devotional accounts of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Calme des nuits” and Beethoven’s “Gesang der Mönche.”

At the same time, there was a compelling flexibility to their tone. Thus, the scat figures in Ingrid Michaelson’s banal “Twitter Song” came across with tripping energy. So did the delicate accompaniments to Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Most Peculiar Man” and Lennon-McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home.” Their encore of Don McDonald’s “When the Earth Stands Still” was liltingly elegant.

When the ensemble dialed-up the intensity – as they did in the soulful refrains of Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger” and Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue” – their tone was full-bodied and weighted.

The night’s program touched on big issues: anonymity, isolation, addiction, communication, and death, among them. How successfully it dealt with each, though, is another question.

Things weren’t always helped by the sometimes-trite spoken prefaces to several of the numbers. Some of those also involved ham-handed, too-clever-by-half choreographies (the singers fiddling with their cell phones during the intro to the “Twitter Song,” for instance).

Nor were the musical choices flawless. Laura Mvula’s “She” proved faceless. The Tyler Clementi homage (“You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen) was earnestly sung but lyrically simplistic.

Still, when things clicked, Wednesday’s performance was compelling. This was especially true of the readings of three pieces written expressly for Cantus.

Most recent of those was Libby Larsen’s YOU, a Celebrity Series co-commission, receiving its local premiere.

A setting of poems by Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, YOU covers a range of gestures. Four of the five movements feature antiphonal introductions on words drawn from the poems (“You, here,” “You, now,” etc.). There’s a declamatory adaptation (of Dickinson’s “You cannot put a Fire out”) as well as a slow, soft chorale (the concluding “You, here…know, love”).

In between comes a pungently chromatic “My Candle burns at both ends”; the simmering passions of Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” and Millay’s “Thursday,” combined; and an ominous berceuse (Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”).

The whole piece has striking moments: the piercing, contrary-motion lines of “My Candle burns” and the concluding, orgiastic yawps of “Wild Nights” among them. While Larsen’s cycle ultimately left less of an impression than other works on the program, Cantus’s performance was finely blended and rhythmically tight.

David Lang’s Manifesto was pithily direct. A setting of Google auto-completions of the phrase “I want to be with someone who…,” it’s surprisingly affecting. The first verse introduces a series of fragmented phrases, over which the score’s subsequent texts are layered; the opening motto is omnipresent, like a cantus firmus. Cantus sang the piece with wistful energy and delicate shadings of color.

Steven Sametz’s stirring We two filled out the evening.

Setting five of Walt Whitman “Calamus” poems, We two includes some peppy chorale textures (“Earth, my likeness”),  as well as mellifluously swooning writing (“Here the frailest leaves of me”) and vigorous counterpoint (“We two”).

Wednesday’s performance was further highlighted by a tenderly lyrical account of “I am he that aches with amorous love” and a meditative take on “Not heat flames up and consumes.”

The Celebrity Series will present Gautier Capuçon and Yuja Wang playing Chopin and Franck 8 p.m. April 6 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661

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