Christmas choral concerts can easily turn into a shapeless ragbag of seasonal favorites and feel-good singalongs for the audience.
The eight-man vocal ensemble Cantus has taken an entirely different tack in “Christmas With Cantus,” a holiday program that runs through Dec. 22 at various venues.
Built around two serious-minded stories of the season — “Christmas or the Good Fairy” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” — Thursday morning’s performance at Westminster Presbyterian Church set a predominantly sober tone.
Cantus members shared the reading of each story, and proved themselves as sensitive at narrating as they habitually are at singing. Songs and carols relevant to the stories were interspersed along the way, in performances that were scrupulously pitched and blended, and matchlessly evocative.
Highlights in “The Good Fairy” were a version of “Silver Bells” that recalled the Four Freshmen in the precision of its tight harmonies; a rapt rendition of Hildegard of Bingen’s “O Frondens Virga” that rolled back the centuries, and a persuasively tender take on “Feed the Birds” from “Mary Poppins.”
Beecher Stowe’s story ends on a generous note, with Christmas gifts distributed to the deserving. Yet even there the mood was pensive, in a setting of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with unexpectedly ruminative shadings.
“The Little Match Girl” is a darker tale, despite the glowing visions the protagonist sees when she lights her stock of matches.
Selections such as John Duggan’s “O Babe, Born Bare” and Melissa Dunphy’s “It’s Strange About Stars” emphasized the grim vulnerability of those excluded from the general round of Christmas merrymaking. Even the overexposed “Walking in the Air” from Howard Blake’s animated film “The Snowman” became a telling commentary on the match girl’s death, in Paul Scholtz’s plangent tenor solo.
Words and music were seamlessly integrated in both stories, in a pattern devised collaboratively by the eight Cantus singers. Their vocalism was of a predictably high quality, making some harmonically complex part-writing seem ridiculously easy.
Perhaps even more impressive was their ability to keep material that can quickly turn mawkishly sentimental seem real and relevant to the present. In our cynical, prosaically minded age, that is a precious skill to offer.
Between the stories came some light relief, in Cantus’ own adaptation of highlights from Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet “The Nutcracker.”
No words were used to tell this particular story of a child’s magically fanciful Christmas. Instead, favorite numbers from Tchaikovsky’s hit-filled score were cast as wordless vocalise, with doos, dahs, bums and bahs substituting for lyrics — and, of course, a “plum-plum” rhythm for possibly the ballet’s best-known number.
“Love, the God Eternal,” a beautifully written new work by Cantus bass Chris Foss, opened the program, and Timothy C. Takach’s thoughtful arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” ended it.
There are stacks of Christmas choir events to choose from over the holiday period. But for its exceptional combination of charm, thoughtfulness and sheer vocal quality it would be difficult to beat this one.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.