'Rock stars of the choir world' help high school

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2013 - 2:37 PM

The Cantus Vocal Ensemble is starting a yearlong residency to mentor and inspire Andover choir students to make music magical.

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The Cantus, an all-male a capella group, will work with Andover choir students on technique and skills.

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A couple of weeks ago, Cantus Vocal Ensemble, an all-male a cappella group based in Minneapolis, performed an eclectic mix of classical, spiritual and rock songs for a captive audience at Andover High School.

Simeon Toronto, a senior at the school and the president of its concert choir, said it made an impression on him and many other young singers in the audience. “We were just amazed. We were all blown away by the talent and performance,” he said.

The singers are the “rock stars of the choir world,” he said. “I look up to these guys. They’re about as good as you can get in professional vocal performance.”

The concert marked the start of the ensemble’s yearlong residency at the high school. Every year, Cantus picks several high schools representing urban, suburban and rural areas to take part in its residency program, according to Shahzore Shah, a tenor with the group who doubles as its outreach education coordinator.

This year, that also includes South High School in Minneapolis and St. Michael-Albertville High School. The residency involves several master classes led by Cantus at each school, along with a winter festival that blends the choirs together. It culminates with a mass concert on May 17, he said.

So, throughout the year, schools get individual attention, but they also collaborate on pieces, he said.

That brings out a greater diversity of voices, he said, adding, “We want the three schools to benefit from each other and from working with us.”

Cantus developed the program, which is in its sixth year, as a way to deepen its presence in the community, Shah said.

More broadly, the program, which is accepting applications for next year through Nov. 1, underscores the importance of music education, especially in light of budget cuts that often affect the arts, he said.

The residency

At the ensemble’s prompting, Andover High School underwent a rigorous application process to land the residency, according to school choir director Melanie Kjellberg.

Besides submitting a recent recording of the concert choir as a sort of audition tape, the school gathered letters of support from students, parents and administrators, she said.

Kjellberg said the 68-member concert choir, which includes a mix of students in grades 10 through 12, has plenty to gain from the experience.

For starters, Cantus, a nine-member group that grew out of a venture at St. Olaf College in 1995, is unique in that it doesn’t have a conductor, she said. As such, each vocalist takes turns leading the group.

“Getting to see that kind of collaboration, that’s huge for the students,” she said.

During the residency, Cantus will work to finesse various aspects of the choir’s performance. It could be breathing technique, musical interpretation or tone production, depending on “what’s important to our choir.”

In general, it’s about “making the music come off the page. Having great models for that is important,” she said.

Cantus is also taking the time to talk to the students about the practical realities of being a professional musician. For example, following the opening concert, Cantus fielded questions about “how to live that life not only as a hobby, but as a career,” she said.

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