When COVID swept into our lives last spring, Cantus was the first Twin Cities music ensemble to offer us consolation and sustenance. Over three days in March, the a cappella vocal group recorded 19 songs that garnered millions of views on YouTube and Facebook, opening hearts that had been sequestered in fear and uncertainty.
Nine months on, the initial shock of the pandemic may have passed, but the need for comfort remains. Daily death tolls are eclipsing those of our most tragic disasters, and the holiday season could easily lure us down a path to despair and hopelessness. We may need Cantus more than ever.
But, worry not: The group is here, streaming its annual "Christmas With Cantus" concerts in two parts over two weekends. Taped in early November at Ordway Concert Hall, the program follows the ensemble's recent template of creating its own take on the "Nine Lessons and Carols" tradition spawned 140 years ago at England's King's College, Cambridge. The lessons come through contemporary poetry, the carols a multicultural mix of sacred and secular, but always seasonal.
Both the first half (streamed Dec. 11-13) and the second (Dec. 18-20) are an hour-long immersion in intimately exchanged harmonies. There is much solace and succor to be gleaned from both the music and poetry, and the silence that greets each completed piece amplifies the tone of reverence, often bringing a haunting quality to the concert.
For these performances, Cantus' numbers are reduced from the usual eight to seven, as bass Samuel Green was attending to a family matter. And, while both baritones have moved on since spring, a couple of very good temporary replacements have been secured in Brandon Martin and Jeremy Wong. Such is Cantus' growing international reputation that increasingly outstanding singers seem to queue up whenever there's an opening.
The septet quarantined separately, underwent COVID testing, and then isolated together for rehearsals and this performance. A palpable chemistry seems to have quickly developed among the singers, coming through on Part One's opening piece, Saunder Choi's multi-mood arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard on High." Beginning solemnly with a lovely solo by Paul Scholtz, it accrues an exhilarating energy, climaxing in a Martin solo with the scintillating spirit of a revival meeting.
Part One also features two of the most beautiful performances on either half of the concert. From his home country of Mexico, Cantus tenor Alberto de la Paz has brought the Christmas lullaby "A la Nanita Nana," his arrangement providing welcome warmth. It starts a string of solemn yet sweet carols that includes member Jacob Christopher's version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" and Cantus co-founder Erick Lichte's "Silent Night," adding a verse in Hawaiian courtesy of Wong.
But the concert's tone is never more soothing than on a hypnotic version of Kim Andre Arnesen's "Even When He Is Silent" and the touching concluding lullaby, "Light in the Hallway," best known from the recording by Pentatonix.
Part Two opens with a far more celebratory air on the South African song "Bonk' Abaphandle," complete with drum and a bit of choreography. Yet, from there, the moods go in many directions, and the inspiring selections are fewer. That said, the poetry recited between songs is often exquisite, particularly from the pen of Joy Harjo, but also in Martin's arresting reading of Angela Shannon's "Sunday."
For whatever reason, the sound doesn't come through as cleanly on the second half, which makes murky the lyrics of the profoundly sad "My Way Home," a song Christopher H. Harris wrote from the perspective of a child killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, offering comfort to aggrieved parents.
Not until the concert's final two pieces does the music become as involving as on Part One. That's when spirits take flight on a propulsive version of Michael John Trotta's "Veni, Veni Emmanuel" and the group concludes with what's been Cantus' signature song throughout its 25-year history, Franz Biebl's mesmerizing "Ave Maria."
Lessons and Carols for Our Time
When: Part One is available for streaming from 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13. Part Two is available from 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20.
Tickets: Pay what you can, starting at $5, cantussings.org
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org