Cantus stretches bounds of musical frontiers

Perhaps a lingering audience member at Sunday's Lied Center performance by Cantus said it best: "What a repertoire!"

Indeed, the men's vocal ensemble sang a world tour of music that led listeners from the Shenandoah Valley to the way-north land of the Inuits to the heart of Africa to the mountains of China and even into Motown. The 10-member group of 20-something vocalists, which hails from Minnesota's twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, shined through African-American spirituals, folk songs, sacred works, pop and chants -- and they made the style shifts look easy.

The men's on-stage chemistry came off as a musical conversation. Standing in a semicircle for most of the show, they bantered back and forth in tenor, bass and baritone, performing with engaging theatricality. Only a few pieces were accompanied by instrumentation.

They began with two songs about the devil, "Daemon Irrepit Callidus" by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Orban and "Demon of the Gibbet" by German Paul Hindemith, and then responded with two songs about divinity, the Finnish "Legenda" and "In His Care-O," a William Dawson spiritual. Notable in all the numbers was the group's purity of tone and crispness of enunciation. Pitch was spot-on throughout.

Cantus' first obvious exhibition of eclecticism came with its rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," the haunting 1970s tune about a deadly shipwreck on Lake Superior. Bass Alan Dunbar played guitar and sang solo parts, while tenor Brian Arreola traded voice for cello and accompanied as the ensemble provided backup vocals. The result was an emotional build-up toward a harmonious storm that resolved in clear, ghostly tones.

Cantus next evoked a peaceful mood with Harry T. Burleigh's "Deep River." The piece was bookended with meditative hums, and the group sang lushly through long, dreamy phrases. In "Alleluia," the repetition on a single word of exaltation allowed the ensemble to explore a range of harmonies and dynamics, remaining controlled and focused throughout.

Highlights from the second half of the program included a humorous lament about the death of Minnesota hero Paul Bunyan arranged by bass Tim Takach. Tenor Albert Jordan belted out Smokey Robinson's jazzy "Who's Lovin' You" above do-wop harmonies sung by the full ensemble. Jordan's smooth-as-honey voice fit the number just right, and he never oversang.

In a series the group called "Bound Away -- Songs of Earth," "Nukapianguaq" (Inuit Chants) and the Finnish "Dalvi duoddar luohti" were standouts. The first layered short syllables with imitative animal sounds, clapping, stomping and beats from a single drum. The second song drew plenty of laughs with its use of nonsensical syllables strung together in melodious lines. It ended with the men impressively recreating the sound of an aboriginal didgeridoo.

The encore, an African-inspired piece called "Let Your Voice Be Heard," brought the audience to its feet and encapsulated everything extraordinary about this group: its diversity of repertoire, its willingness to stretch the boundaries of vocal music by incorporating atypical sounds, its charisma and, above all, the stunning vocal abilities of all its members.

It was Cantus' second trip to Lawrence. Let's hope it's not the last.

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