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Pretty Cool up There on the Giants’ Shoulders


On the Shoulders of Giants was the rather enigmatic title given to the performance of about 20 works ranging from Pérotin (i.e., Perotinus, fl. ca. 1200 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris ) to (“classical)” pop (including works by Michael Jackson and two of the Beatles, the latter as arranged by Chris Foss, a Cantus bass). Cantus is a nine-member, all-male, a capella vocal ensemble who performed at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Friday night, June 29th.

Originally founded by students at St. Olaf College, the ensemble based in Minneapolis/St. Paul has morphed into a fully professional full-time group with yearly salaries. Its artistic direction is now fully collaborative. The character and intensity of this relationship was captured among some interviews on February 4, 2011 during the Ensemble’s year as Artist in Residence with Minnesota Public Radio (below) .

Distinctive programming is a strong feature of this collaboration. For example, one often hears Randall Thompson’s Alleluia as a glittering, shimmering piece, rising to its climax in fortissimo, leaving the audience wishing for some other text. On this occasion, however, it was sung with tender care in the pianissimo and even softer range, the performers even turning occasionally to face each other to be sure of the exact tone projected. At the same time, Allelulia’s placement near the beginning of the program following the initial, jaunty, triple-metered Sederunt by Pérotin and Vittoria’s quiet Responsory of 1585, O vos omnes, and just before E’en so, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come, by the late Minnesota composer Paul Manz (1919-2009) may have seemed strange. Yet these works were all highly regarded in their own contexts and thus generated the program’s title, “On the Shoulders of Giants.”

There is a sameness of sound of the all-one-gender vocal ensemble that cannot be avoided, but it can be dissipated, thanks to Cantus’s collaborative efforts. The five tenors are divided to achieve the common quartet division (TTBB) of Schubert’s Die Nacht, D. 983c, Grieg’s Båden Låt (Båden song, an excerpt from his Norwegian folksong collection), Schumann’s Die Rose stand im Tau (The rose was in the dew, TTBBB), and Mendelssohn’s Jagdlied (Hunting song, SATB), all of which were performed with spirited stylishness. There were occasional solos, but only when specified within the texture of the work and not presented in full force. And there was variety achieved simply through their choices of works to be sung, e.g.: two works commemorating the sinking of war boats, one by the folk-pop composer Gordon Lightfoot, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and one by the choral composer Veljo Tormis, Incantatio maris aestuosi (Incantation for a stormy sea). There were a number of sacred works by composers of various countries with diverse styles—Russian, Finnish, American, African-American, Sufi, and Estonian—film composers, and one for Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Lest this dissolve into meaningless lists, let me say this is a group you will probably want to hear when you have the next chance. Cantus has been here once before, during the opening season, and will probably come again. If introductions are to be made to individual pieces, the members take turns. Although they sing with distinction, they also relate extremely well to audiences. The audience loved them—standing, loud ovations, but audiences tend to do that in Rockport at the Shalin. These young men sing with clarity, excellent diction, enthusiasm, yea, even passion, spiced frequently with gentle accents from portable percussion instruments, and large smiles

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area. 

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