To showcase the release of their new CD of sacred music, "That Eternal Day," the male vocal ensemble Cantus have a series of concerts through March 27. On Thursday morning at Westminster Presbyterian Church, they performed only an abbreviated program, about two-thirds of the full concert.
In addition to diction-perfect English, they performed in Latin, French, Norwegian, Russian and Hungarian, demonstrating the intellectual rigor they bring to their music-making.
That extended to working with Jordan Sramek, the Rose Ensemble artistic director, on their first piece, "Sederunt" by Perotin, from the 12th century, one of the earliest extant versions of medieval polyphony. It's doubtful that any group of medieval monks could have performed the chant more successfully, with a rich tone and perfect unisons, as well as balanced harmonies.
But this program was about much more than musical proficiency. A sense of deep spirituality informed the performance. That was especially true of the "Quatre Petites Prières de Saint Francois d'Assise" by Francis Poulenc, where they captured the austerity of his setting.
The second half was devoted to American sacred music off of the CD. Here they stumbled a bit. They did two African-American spirituals, "There's a Meeting Here Tonight" and "Keep Your Lamps," in which their own arrangements resulted in a stylistic disconnect: these were white guys singing in a tradition clearly not their own.
And the performance of "Hallelujah" by William Walker, from "The Sacred Harp," in the shape-note tradition, lacked any of the joy they sang about. They seemed more focused on making a beautiful sound than on the meaning.
They were on surer footing with "Simple Gifts." Even the rich harmonies of the arrangement, including an amazing nine-part final chord, captured the work's utter simplicity.
That was also true of their rendition of Bobby McFerrin's setting of "The 23rd Psalm (dedicated to my mother)", the most affecting setting of this text I've encountered. The performance was deeply felt and utterly sublime.
They saved the best for last, their encore: "Wanting Memories" by Ysaye M. Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock. They made the work their own, creating almost a lullaby of gentle peace.
William Randall Beard writers regularly about music.