Can art be too political? I wondered at times during “America Will Be!,” the latest themed program by Twin Cities vocal ensemble Cantus.
Part 1 of the recital focused on women’s rights, with extended video clips screened between the musical numbers, each produced in collaboration with YWCA Minneapolis.
Big issues regarding race, sexuality and discrimination were raised by the women on film — so big, in fact, that the music occasionally seemed an afterthought, or simply mood music for the spiky debate initiated by the on-screen speakers.
There were, however, exceptional musical moments. Benjamin Britten’s “Advance Democracy” was one of them. Written as World War II loomed, its jabbing staccato accents were dispatched with pinpoint clarity by the eight Cantus singers, catching the menace implicit in Britten’s setting.
Playing percussion instruments is another Cantus specialty. A selection was wheeled out for Daniel Valdez’s “Chicano Protest Melody,” which also featured some fine solo singing on the verses.
Part 2 of the recital focused on LGBT issues. It opened with a poised, meaningful account of David Conte’s “An Exhortation,” with a setting of words from Barack Obama’s victory speech after his 2008 election.
Again, the Cantus performance was exceptional, with crystal-clear articulation of the text, and a perfectly engineered crescendo on the now-famous Obama credo “Yes, we can!”
Obama’s aspirational exhortation permeated the second half of the program, which had an almost evangelical fervor at times. Pleas from video speakers for understanding and acceptance on issues of gender and sexual preference were reflected in the careful musical selections.
Sweet, ardent solo work from tenors Zachary Colby and Jacob Christopher freshened the overexposed Cyndi Lauper anthem “True Colors,” and the pitched babble underlying Mohammed Fairouz’s “On the Shoulders of Giants” fizzed with energy.
The evening culminated with “America Will Be!,” a setting by Paul John Rudoi (a Cantus alumnus) of a poem by African-American writer Langston Hughes.
In its injunction to “Let America be America again” and renew the struggle for inclusiveness, the political message was unmistakable.
That message was further underlined by an encore of “America the Beautiful.” For this the Cantus men were joined by the chamber choir of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, who had opened the recital with two immaculately blended numbers of their own.
The sound of the combined ensembles was impressive. By this point, though, the evening felt more like a revivalist rally than a choral concert, complete with a spoken injunction to the audience to behave in a kinder, more tolerant fashion to one another.
Can music carry this kind of freighted social message? It can. But the danger of preachiness is real, and Cantus occasionally came a little too close in this otherwise consummately sung recital.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.