It’s easy to show off if you’re a good singer. A cheeky crescendo here, a ringing high note there, all feelingly signaled via a variety of “emotional” facial expressions.
That is not the Cantus way. The eight-man ensemble’s sensitive, collegial teamwork was what struck you time and again at the group’s Thursday morning Christmas concert at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. There was a total absence of individual showboating.
Titled “Lessons and Carols for Our Time,” the recital’s template was the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a special worship service invented during England’s Victorian era. Instead of biblical readings, though, there was a selection of contemporary poetry conveying mainly secular themes of borders, migration, femininity and racial minorities. If the narrative threads were sometimes tenuous — featuring a poem about sheep, and another about a raccoon — the content was thought-provoking and humanized the often trite formulas deployed for seasonal proclamations.
The choice of music ranged widely, straddling no fewer than eight languages plucked from a grab bag of global cultures. The rumble of Africa resounded in the drumbeats that bass Chris Foss tapped out as an underlay to the opening “Noel.” The singers conjured pealing bell effects in the Filipino “Aguinaldo Carols.” Europe was represented by Sofia Söderberg’s take on the traditional French “Noël Nouvelet” and Cantus alum Aaron Humble’s arrangement of the Austrian favorite “Still, Still, Still.”
Immaculately balanced part singing distinguished two works: Twin Cities composer Linda Kachelmeier’s “We Toast the Days” and a lightly nostalgic glide through the old Kent-Gannon standard “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” There was even a little Disney: a richly layered harmonization of “Feed the Birds” from “Mary Poppins.”
And then there was the Pogues. How do you make the Celtic punk band’s irreverent Christmas anthem “Fairytale of New York” work with a barbershop octet? Is that even possible? Cantus proved it was — by leaving out the risqué bits and shaping frontman Shane MacGowan’s pavement-poetry lyrics with wit and wry affection. Tenor Jacob Christopher resisted imitating MacGowan’s growly vocal delivery, emphasizing the heart-tugging quality of the lead melody by singing with elegant refinement. Christopher also traded solos with baritone David Geist in a close harmony rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a taster for Cantus’ complete performance of Mitchell’s classic album “Blue” later this season (May 31-June 8, 2019).
Occasionally the program seemed over-reliant on songs with slowish tempos, with perhaps one too many doo-wop-style accompaniments. But it ended with a bubbling rendition of the African-American spiritual “Children Go,” a so-called cumulative song where each chorus adds one more line than the last. Foss strapped on a guitar for the number, edging the singers upward through a series of modulations to a joyful, euphonious conclusion. If you didn’t feel the holiday spirit when you bought your ticket, you certainly did when the concert was over.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.