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Cantus Achieves Perfection


Despite another damp foggy Saturday night, the sold-out Newport Classical concert featuring one of America’s premiere all-men’s vocal ensembles, Cantus, roused the Breakers mansion audience with its often humorous and satirical, but also deep and provocative show. “Alone Together” featured all new and mostly American music, representing an expansion of the group’s 2018-19 touring program, deepened with the experience of having gone through the pandemic, and grateful to again be performing live and touring. Despite the modernity of the music, all of it pleased the ear, coming across as soave, smooth and perfect vocal blending of eight, astute, handsome young men in matching blue suits and  tan shoes, speaking and singing with eloquence, wit, and depth.

Deep Blue, by Australian composer Cam Butler reflected on our use and over-use of the cell phone, offering melodic lines over a smooth texture of close harmony (where the voices are packed closely together, a bit like Barbershop harmony). Individual voices could be featured while the accompanying texture perfectly displayed the Cantus trademark smooth, warm, and rich tone. American singer-songwriter and actress Ingrid Michaelson’s light, jazzy and humorous satire Twitter Song followed.

A spokesman described the next set as a reflection on our reliance of tech connections, enhanced and increased during the time of pandemic shut down, versus our need for human connection. The conflict between isolation and connection that intensified in the time of Covid and post-Covid inspired the theme of “Alone Together” and informed the selections.

David Lang based his Manifesto (also the title of Cantus’s most recent album) on a Google search: “I want to be with someone who…”. These words came across vocally in short, truncated chords resembling a computerized voice. The search results then became the lyrics of the song, put across in long lines of sad lyricism that represented the human qualities we seek, crying out over the staccato clips of computer noise.

Afro-British pop singer Laura Mvula’s She, commented about looking for love on a cell phone, trapped by it, looking for a way out, but “She don’t stop, she don’t stop, she don’t stop…” – modern, jazzy piece rich in sonority yet starkly poignant, building in intensity on the quoted lyrics adding the rhythms of stamping, slapping thighs and finger snaps.

Another story of the pandemic took place in the dead of winter during the year of the shutdown, and the sighting of a lone red fox in a bleak and empty downtown Minneapolis, searching…for….? The answer perhaps came in the tranquil hymn-like paean of Saint-Saëns’s Calmes des Nuits: “Stillness of the night, cool of the evening, vast shimmering of the spheres, great silence of black vaults…only the poet is possessed by the love of quiet things.”

Andrea Ramsey’s setting in rich close harmony of a text by Helen Keller, That Which Remains, expressed best the theme of the evening, that regardless of all that has befallen us, “what we have once enjoyed we can never lose…” affirming with finality that “Life is overlord of death…and love can never lose its own.”

A short dialogue skit on the overcrowding of voices in our tech lives set up Libby Larsen’s You III Emily Dickinson poem asks, “who are you / who am I?” in a song similar in texture and esprit to the David Lang selection heard earlier.

Cantus brought us Simon and Garfunkel’s A Most Peculiar Man cleverly arranged to highlight three-part close harmony texture supported by five voices imitating the strumming of a folk-guitar in the style and sound of the iconic folk duo. A music-theater styled piece by American theater and television composer-team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, You Will Be Found, then delivered an inspirational message of hope against adversity.

The second half continued with moving pieces embracing joy, love, and peace, in music infused with Latin and jazz rhythms, clapping, snapping, and stomping to gospel, revival exuberance.  Examples of some of the great heritage of American music composed by Blacks and reflecting their experience in America — slavery and the struggle for freedom — included music of Christopher Harris, Ysaÿe M. Barnwell, and a rousing and moving collection of spirituals from the Georgia Sea Islands arranged brilliantly by Paul John Rudoi for Cantus and titled Yonder Come Day. It featured on the group’s recent album “The Covid 19 Sessions.” An encore, John Lennon’s Imagine, closed a perfect evening.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

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