Last summer, there was a lot of "virtue signaling" going on.
After George Floyd was killed and voices of exasperation and anger started filling the streets and cyberspace, it seemed that almost every organization issued statements of dismay so similar, they could have been the work of one public relations firm. There was a lot more talk than walk.
Which is why Cantus' spring program, "Fields of Wonder," impresses all the more. The all-male vocal group did nothing to alert anyone to the fact that they were performing a concert consisting entirely of Black composers. They just went ahead and did it, and created one of the best Cantus concerts I've experienced over the past decade.
Taped in late January at St. Paul's eerily empty Ordway Concert Hall, the hourlong program streaming this weekend is stylistically diverse, impeccably sung and emotionally involving. Despite having two temporary replacements in its seven-man lineup, the group was impressively simpatico, the collaborative interpretations of this leaderless ensemble astoundingly tight.
Of course, it likely helped that the group had been quarantined together and rehearsing for some time before this performance. And those two stand-ins might be ideal fits: Hawaii-based Jeremy Wong has clearly formed a rapid bond with the other singers this season, and his fellow baritone Adam Reinwald was a founding member of Cantus back at Northfield's St. Olaf College in the '90s, remaining with the group until 2014.
The concert's centerpiece is a song cycle by Margaret Bonds that gave the concert its title. A 20th-century American composer, Bonds was inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes, who became a friend and collaborator. She adapted the text of "Fields of Wonder" from his poetry collection of the same name, but the process reportedly was very much a team effort.
The cycle was premiered in 1963 by the Glee Club of Hughes' alma mater, Pennsylvania's Lincoln University, but — to the best of Cantus' knowledge — has not been performed again until this concert.
The songs are far more lighthearted than most of Hughes' poetry, but each is richly evocative. Among the standouts are "Snake" — both text and music playfully wriggling and weaving about — and the delightfully doo-woppy "New Moon."
How composers and poets interact is a recurring theme of the program, and the settings are almost invariably imaginative. Christopher Harris' adaptation of poet Sara Truesdale's "I Would Live in Your Love" is a velvety confection, while Ysaye Barnwell's "Tango With God" might be the most surprising success, as the contemporary composer set a heart-on-his-sleeve prayer by mid-20th-century Catholic cleric Thomas Merton to a tropical tune.
At some Cantus concerts, I've thought they misjudged the arc of the program, fizzling out at the end. This is not the case with "Fields of Wonder." Sydney Guillaume's "Renmen Renmen" provided the concert's compelling climax, a brief journey full of ebbs, flows and widely varied dynamics. The seven singers never seemed more acutely attuned to one another than here, and it was a joy to watch their intense eye contact at the close range the cameras afforded.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
Cantus: 'Fields of Wonder'
When: Streaming from 7:30 p.m. Friday to 7:30 p.m. Sunday.