The vocal ensemble Cantus reflects on its past, celebrating its 27th year

It began with a lament.

Four freshmen eating dinner in the cafeteria at Northfield’s St. Olaf College in 1995 shared a common disappointment that their days of singing with a group of exclusively male voices might be over. While auditioning for the renowned St. Olaf Choir the following fall would be exciting, they’d miss singing in a smaller, all-male a cappella ensembles. So…

“We made a loose commitment to get together from time to time on Saturdays and sing a few songs and then grab lunch before we hit the books,” tenor Al Jordan said.

Cantus was born.

The brainchild of that cafeteria conversation is now one of America’s few full-time professional vocal ensembles. Having grown its audience through extensive annual touring and a home concert series at the Twin Cities-area venues, Cantus has 19 albums to its credit and three prestigious awards from Chorus America, including its top honor, the Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence.

At 27, Cantus is pausing to celebrate his journey thus far. The group intended to mark its 25th anniversary in 2020 by bringing together as many of its 40-plus alumni as possible for a concert. COVID-19 delayed such a gathering until this Sunday’s performance at St. Paul’s Ordway Concert Hall that will be followed by a gala at the neighboring RiverCentre.

One piece that helped launch Cantus was 20th-century German composer Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.”

“The fact that we wanted to put together a group to sing that was predicated on the fact that Chanticleer’s peerless recording of that work was familiar to us,” tenor Brian Arreola said.

The San Francisco-based male vocal ensemble Chanticleer was something of a role model for Cantus, and the two groups have periodically collaborated on concerts, including one at the Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall in January.

Unlike Chanticleer, which was built upon the vision of its founder, Louis Botto, and his successor as artistic director, Joseph Jennings, Cantus has always been a collaborative effort, with each member contributing to its artistic decisions.

“I think it’s a salient that [original members] Erick Lichte, Kjell Stenberg and I were all cellists, and thus had lots of experience with the unique challenges and rewards of the collaborative chamber music process, “Arreola said.” This was not an approach that was commonly applied to choral music, making Cantus somewhat unique. “

A year after its founding, bass Timothy Takach joined the group.

“In those early rehearsals, it was clear that just about everyone in the room had an opinion about our music making,” Takach recalled. “Performing a concert that was programmed and rehearsed with input from all singers feels different. We were singing for and with each other, not to fulfill one person’s vision.”

Takach found the collaboration so rewarding that he stayed for 17 years, tied with baritone Adam Reinwald for the longest Cantus tenure.

“The first on-campus gig I recall [in the 1995-96 school year] was a concert we put on ourselves, “Jordan said.” We reserved the largest great room in one of the dorms and some of our moms were gracious enough to bake and prepare snacks and treats so we could have a reception. Off-campus, I recall it being at a church in Forest Lake. “

The group’s first concert outside of Minnesota was in 1998 at Rhode Island’s Newport Music Festival, now known as the Newport Classical.

“We first needed the audacity to think that our artistic product was good enough that audiences from beyond the choral-centric confines of Minnesota would be interested in what we had to offer,” Arreola said.

“[Former member] Phil Moody needs to be credited for the tenacity and grit to singlehandedly generate a tour for us to undertake in the summer of 1998, “Arreola added.” On the basis of that gig at the Newport Music Festival, and perhaps one other ‘real’ presenter, they put together a six-week tour of the atlantic seaboard that generated enough revenue for us to pay ourselves – 13 of us – about what we would have done at our summer jobs. “

At the tour’s end, a group meeting in Princeton, NJ, resulted in a majority of the group deciding to move beyond being a college group and “go pro.”

“Once we saw how successful the tour was, we made a commitment to letting the rest of the younger members graduate and then going full-time,” Jordan said. “I think the biggest key to our success was that we didn’t realize how difficult it should have been and how lucky we were to have the pieces fall in place like they did.”

Arreola knew this venture was going to work after a concert in the Philadelphia area.

“The first tour included a performance at Longwood Gardens [an arboretum west of Philadelphia]and it was an incredible venue, “he said.” It made us feel like real professionals. “

Jordan’s epiphany arrived two years later.

“After we had a chance to tour for a couple of summers, we went to a showcase where we had many different presenters from across the country coming to see these different acts and booking them,” Jordan said. “Once we performed and saw the response that we received from the crowd, I think now of us knew at that time that we had a real shot of making this go.

“That first showcase showed me that there was a world out there where performance and performance art could thrive. And that we could be part of it.”

Cantus Anniversary Concert

When: 3 pm Sun.

Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Ordway Paul.

Tickets: $ 128- $ 35, available at 651-224-4222 or Ordway.org.

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at wordhub@yahoo.com.

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