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The stage at Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium was almost bare, save for a row of objects towards the rear: a guitar, a small tabla-type drum, two music stands holding a variety of small percussion instruments, and another slightly larger drum. After the house lights dimmed, Duke Performances welcomed the nine members of Cantus to the stage. The five tenors, two baritones, and two basses count one DMA, six MMs, and one Bachelor of Music degree in their collective biographies – only one did not major in music. The results of this training were evident in the group's exemplary performances of twenty-three works (24 if you count the encore) in widely-ranging styles, sung in seven languages.
To comment on each of these works would make this review unduly long; let me focus instead on the programming and the qualities of singing which make Cantus a superb ensemble.
The program, entitled "The Four Loves," grouped works relating to the four kinds of love represented by the Greek words storge, agape, philia, and eros. Works by twelve living composers (including several whose works were commissioned by Cantus) took their places together with music by "household-name" composers Francis Poulenc, Ludwig van Beethoven, Arnold Schoenberg, and Edvard Grieg. The musical styles varied from classical to folk to popular; the texts were wonderfully thought-provoking, some so poignant as to invite tears.
Cantus' publicity states that they "work without a conductor." While there was no one standing in front of the group to conduct it, the members of the group were in reality their own conductors: attacks were shown by eye contact or by one or another singer's subtle motions of his head. Nevertheless, the intent and effect was that of a chamber-music ensemble composed of singers who are gifted musicians and interpreters as well as masters of their vocal techniques.
Their sonorities ranged from trios and quartets to all nine voices singing intricate contemporary harmonies, their minor-second intervals as "tight" and pure as their octaves. While they adapted their tone to the work at hand (their "Wondrous Love," for example, had the raw vocal quality of a typical shape-note gathering), they were especially effective in their performance of multi-voiced works such as Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque. This was simply gorgeous singing of a work stylistically reminiscent of Arvo Pärt and Morten Lauridsen. The warm acoustics of Baldwin Auditorium enhanced the final, lush chord with its bottom low C-sharp.
Cantus did everything well. (Perhaps only to show that their music-making is indeed human, the final high-A in Grieg's "Brothers, Sing On!" was on the strident side, but that single note was an anomaly in this outstanding concert.) They didn't shy away from singing texts that arise from the times in which we live, including the words by James Clementi written two years after his younger brother Tyler committed suicide after being cyber-bullied for his sexual orientation….or A.E. Housman's commentary on WWI, which concludes "They sought and found six feet of ground, And there they died for me." Their music was poly-cultural; their stage presence featured many different physical groupings. They actively supported contemporary composers by performing and by commissioning new works. They clearly loved what they do, and so did the large audience, whose vigorous applause produced a welcome encore, Cole Porter's "Unforgettable," which is an appropriate word to describe this concert.