december 2011

Cantus: At the yuletide, scaling the heights of ensemble singing again.

A Timeless Message, On Wings Of Song

Cantus Speaks Enduring Truths

By David McGee


Cantus Recordings

Fourteen recordings into its career the male vocal nonet Cantus has scaled the heights of ensemble singing again, and again at Christmas, on a stirring blend of sacred and secular carols from an impressive array of sources in a work that soars heavenward on the strength and spirit of the mens’ voices alone. Though normally an a cappella outfit, sans a musical director or conductor, the fellows bring in some percussion to help out on three numbers, but in keeping with the Cantus tradition, the additional elements add intensity without ever overshadowing the main attraction, namely the tantalizing vocal blends so precisely calibrated to achieve a certain emotional resonance within each number.

Cantus performs ‘Rise Up, Shepherd, And Follow, at its 2008 holiday concert. A new arrangement of the song concludes the group’s new album, Christmas With Cantus.

“Funky” is likely a term rarely used in reference to Cantus’s precision performances, but it’s appropriate when all nine members put some glide in the stride of “Little Drummer Boy” by playing Afro-Caribbean percussion in a jittery arrangement that blends the Gloria Shayne/Harry Simeone evergreen with the 18th Century French carol “Pat-a-pan” as “Pat-A-Drummer.” It’s not easy to go toe-to-toe with Der Bingle’s definitive recording of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” but Cantus makes a memorable stand on the song, with a beautifully textured, multi-part vocal arrangement and some extra rhythmic push provided by Chris Foss on guitar, Richard Davenport on snare drum, Adam Reinwald on bells and Timothy C. Takach on finger cymbals; Foss, Takach and Reinwald, on frame drum and shakers, enhance the mesmerizing nature of the repetitive spiritual cry “Heleluyan” (Hallelujah) in the Muskogee Indian song of the same name.

Going toe-to-toe with Der Bingle and acquitting themselves well, Cantus performs ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ from Christmas With Cantus.

Elsewhere, the program continues in the adventurous Cantus vein with a proud rendering of the 16th Century Slovenian carol celebrating Christ’s birth, “Ta Stara Bozicna Pejsen,” which itself follows the album opening 15th Century English carol, “Nowell! Nowell! This Is The Salutacion,” a solemn but dramatic praise song honoring the Virgin Mary with added propulsion at the end courtesy Takach’s booming frame drum. “Coventry Carol,” another 15th Century item, arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is Cantus at its simple best, with the sonorous trio of tenors Aaron Humble and Gary Ruschman and bass singer Takach achieving a vocal blend that both humbles and elevates the soul in all its majestic serenity. On the other hand, a sprightly, cascading arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” is the sound of the seasonal gaiety the lyrics celebrate, whereas the soothing harmonizing behind the plaintive soloing of Shazore Shah and Gary Ruschman bespeaks the song’s emphatic focus on the enduring, sheltering love of family and friends as the years wear on. Songs with a message, arranged and performed with a purpose, plus a dash of daring, is for Cantus less a formula than a calling, a way to illustrate the relevance its diverse repertoire of ageless ancient and thoughtful contemporary works brings to a world in upheaval. To say it’s needed is to understate the case.

Christmas with Cantus is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024