International news outlets ran a story Thursday about a young sperm whale that washed up dead on the coast of Spain in February. The creature had swallowed more than 60 pounds of plastic waste, fish netting and garbage bags, almost certainly causing its death.
The same day news broke about the whale, Twin Cities vocal ensemble Cantus launched “For the Beauty of the Earth,” its latest themed program. The juxtaposition of these two events was painfully appropriate.
And while classical music probably does little to address environmental issues, “For the Beauty of the Earth” at least tried.
The concert started with the fragility of a single voice, that of tenor Paul Scholtz.
His sweet, poignant leadoff to the hymn-tune “For the Beauty of the Earth” was gradually draped with tentative harmonies — as if beauty itself was somehow a provisional, passing entity.
A similar feeling of time suspended pervaded Hugo Alfven’s “Aftonen” (“Evening”), with its seemingly idyllic vision of valleys, green hills and shepherds’ lullabies. The blending of the eight male voices was warmly euphonious, if somehow not entirely reassuring.
There were lighter moments among the program’s ecologically themed selections. “El Grillo” (“The Cricket”), a song by French Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez, thrummed with the chattering rhythms of the busy insect that “sings out of love.”
And in the neat mash-up of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” with the Tune-Yards’ “Water Fountain,” Mitchell’s wry couplets drew laughter from the audience — not to mention a teasing signoff from baritone David Geist.
Another delight was Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water,” a throwback to the days of happily crooning cowboys. Baritone Matthew Goinz tapped coconut shells to re-create the hoofbeat rhythms of the Western ballad. Roy Ringwald’s arrangement glowed with affectionate nostalgia.
Present realities, though, were the evening’s main focus — especially in “N’ap debat” (“We’re Hangin’ On), composer Sydney Guillaume’s musical response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. To a tribal drumbeat, Guillaume’s piece harnessed the pulses of ritual chanting to a Creole text expressing the resilience of Haitians — “I am a bent reed that does not break” — at a time of natural disaster.
The recital ended with Woody Guthrie’s visionary ballad “This Land Is Your Land,” normally a stirring paean to America’s open spaces, its “sparkling sands” and “golden valley.” Context changes things, however, and the clear message of this Cantus program was that the American landscape is by no means as sparkling or as golden as it used to be. So Guthrie’s song seemed sadder than originally intended, as did the encore “What a Wonderful World.”
Cantus’ performance of the Louis Armstrong standard was beautifully balanced between the eight voices, and full of poetic sensitivity. But how much longer can “wonderful” last, on a planet where a whale chokes to death on human garbage?
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.