Cantus’ fall concert, “A Place for Us,” heard Thursday night at Cowles Center in Minneapolis, touched the heart and opened the mind. This exploration of the immigrant experience struck a very contemporary chord. As our country becomes increasingly xenophobic, the program by the group’s nine male singers demonstrated the value of diversity in our pluralistic culture.
The evening opened with a haunting medley of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” and “The Finlandia Hymn” by Jean Sibelius. This set the concert’s theme, the search for home, into sharp relief.
The performances were culturally sensitive, especially with the non-European selections. They succeeded in being true to the aesthetics of original traditions. These included a Lakota song; a series if Inuit chants, austere yet spiritual; a traditional Hawaiian song, sung in a raw vocal style; and a traditional Mexican folk song, a tongue-in-cheek love song.
The concert celebrated European-American traditions as well. The men gave a stunning performance of William Billings’ “Anthem: Lamentation over Boston,” one of the first great pieces of American music, a contemporary reflection on a Revolutionary War battle. There was also an Appalachian folk song, the spiritual “Ain’ Got Time to Die,” and the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.”
The program included two world premieres. “Psalm of the Soil,” by Sarah Kirkland Snider, was commissioned especially for this concert. Rooted in folk music but full of complex harmonies, it effectively evoked the emotional complexity of the immigrant experience.
The most political piece of the evening was the world-premiere of “America Will Be!” by Cantus member Paul John Rudoi. A rousing patriotic anthem setting a text by Langston Hughes, it juxtaposed the cries of outsiders with a call for America to become its highest and most idealistic self.
In an effort to elaborate on the narrative of the program, the evening paired the songs with readings from writers from Walt Whitman to Black Elk. These gave the music a historical context. But too much additional time was spent philosophizing on the theme and overexplaining the music. This was the one weakness of the evening.
Cantus has been out on the road, performing and perfecting this program for over a month. They sang with the effulgent sound, impeccable balances and expert diction that has come to be expected from this ensemble.
William Randall Beard writes about music and theater.