Cantus mixes old and new in Chapel

Sonia Emmons

The singers of Cantus walked onto the stage in matching black suits with red ties and red handkerchiefs peeking out of in their breast pockets. One was tall and two were quite short. One was bald and another had dreadlocks that reached his waist. There were nine of them, yet when they started to sing, their voices blended like they were one man.The professional male vocal chamber ensemble Cantus, based in the Twin Cities, performed in the Chapel Saturday, Feb. 23. Cantus is Latin for “singing,” and the nine musicians sang with pure, balanced voices.

The program offered all kinds of musical and dramatic variety. It began with Eric Whitacre and ended with Billy Joel. In one piece the versatile musicians solemnly sang the words of a soldier’s last letter home, and in another song they not-so-solemnly howled like monkeys (after which they thanked the audience for “indulging us in a moment of silliness”).

Cantus is one of the few full-time vocal ensembles in the world. Their concert tours consist of visiting college campuses, concert halls, and church concert series.

Cantus tenor Gary Ruschman explained that 70 percent of the group’s repertoire is published choral music such as Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” While classical music is the core of their repertoire, he said, “We use the trained voice to present music from around the world and music that wouldn’t normally be on this kind of program.” This includes works like “Ramkali,” a classical Indian raga, or an Indian scale upon which a love song is based.

“Ramkali” featured Lawrence graduate Shahzore Shah, a tenor, singing an improvised melody that sounded like beautiful wailing. The rest of the group held a droning open fifth while Shah improvised in the Urdu language (the group sings in over 20 languages). The drone was rendered in harmonic overtones, producing a hollow sound like that of a didgeridoo.

Ruschman described how to sing harmonic overtones: “Sing a vowel, like an ‘e.’ Add an ‘r’ sound to it. Then change the shape of your mouth as you are singing the pitch, and the overtones pop out. It’s like magic.”

Try it. This little trick is bound to impress your friends.

Cantus certainly knows how to impress an audience. By the third piece on the first half, the applause had grown noticeably louder. The piece that did it was “Five Ways to Kill a Man” by Bob Chilcott, a former King’s Singer. The words, taken from a poem by Edwin Brock, tell of the “many cumbersome ways to kill a man.”

The first three verses, which speak of traditional methods of killing, were sung in unison and accompanied by a steady drumbeat. In the fourth verse, the drummer stopped and the music became quiet and dissonant as man entered the 20th century, where “you may fly miles above your victim and dispose of him by pressing one small switch.”

The last verse was sung as a fugue, with the voices entering one after another with each line. The drumbeat returned and the poem concludes that the simplest way to kill a man is “to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, and leave him there.”

Through their unwavering voices and solemn presentation of the work, Cantus conveyed the danger that lurks beneath the sparkling surface of modern technological progress.

Cantus’s strong appeal can be attributed both to the stirring tunes they sing and the joy they radiate onstage. Their senses of humor were appreciated when, to everyone’s dismay, a ringing cell phone was heard during the quiet Kentucky Appalachian tune “Bright Morning Star.”

A member of the group took the microphone after the next song, “a loud and rambunctious arrangement” of Stephen Foster’s famous “Camptown Races,” and commented that “it would have covered up the cell phone ring.” The owner of that phone is probably still blushing.

Other highlights of the concert included Bobby McFerrin’s arrangement of “The 23rd Psalm (dedicated to my mother),” and a well-choreographed 19th century American folk ballad called “Banks of the Ohio.”

For this song, the singers assumed casual stances, some with their hands in their pockets, others tapping their hands on their sides. They looked so genial walking around the stage, singing the verses in duets, that the line “I plunged a knife into her breast” was truly shocking.

One member of Cantus informed the audience that the group has performed at Lawrence somewhere between eight and fifteen times — he was hesitant to give an exact number. I sincerely hope they return for the ninth or 16th time before I leave.