A Cantus concert is always all about the singing, as the low-voiced octet takes audiences on sonic journeys to points elsewhere. Only occasionally does the interstitial text between the music claim almost equal billing with the group's transporting harmonies.
But the surprise at this year's "Christmas with Cantus" concerts is the familiarity of the text that almost steals the show: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." As at its 2017 holiday concerts, Cantus has selected songs that work as a soundtrack of sorts for the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's haunted reckoning, interweaving them into a condensed version of the novella, each of the eight singers taking a captivating turn with narration.
Thanks in part to the intimacy of the 375-seat hall within the Frank Gehry-flavored addition to Minneapolis' Westminster Presbyterian Church, the program's midday maiden voyage felt like an ideal entree into the spirit of the season. Dickens' descriptive prose proved a fine fit with the chosen repertoire before the program grew considerably sunnier with Mark Twain's witty "A Letter from Santa Claus" and Christine Le's "The Hawai'i Snowman," complemented by tunes that evoke the tropical climes of our 50th state.
Throughout the concert, the group's eight members were acutely attuned to one another in pitch, mood and dynamics, the harmonies richly textured and the solos executed invariably well. The stories and songs took the audience on a satisfying journey from darkness to light, specifically the darkness of bleak London to the sun-splashed beaches of Hawai'i. But, perhaps because of the story's gravitas and colorfully eloquent delivery, the Dickens made the strongest impression.
That's also because the songs threaded between the episodes of the story cast such a becoming light upon the group's versatility. The singers theatrically teetered through a gregarious "Wassail" before tenor Paul Scholtz sang lead on a lovely version of David Dickau's "Love Came Down at Christmas" to accompany the Cratchit family's dinner. Then Cantus showed off its sense of swing on a Mills Brothers-influenced version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Reginald Bowers' breezy arrangement of "Joy to the World."
The Twain missive gave way to a delightful quartet version of "Must Be Santa" before we all headed to Hawai'i. Le's light story is best for young readers, but it was a pleasure to hear Cantus take on some of the islands' tourism-board-approved fare, particularly when Jeremy Wong strummed a ukulele and crooned a paean to his hometown, "Honolulu, I Am Coming Back Again." And Cantus will indeed come back to it at a series of Hawai'i-inspired summer concerts.
'Christmas with Cantus'
When and where: 7 p.m. Sat., Zumbro Lutheran Church, 624 3rd Av. SW., Rochester; 3 p.m. Sun., Trinity Lutheran Church, 115 N. 4th St., Stillwater; 11 a.m. Thu., Meetinghouse Church, 6200 Colonial Way, Edina; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15, St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church, 17205 County Road 6, Plymouth; 3:30 p.m. Dec. 16, Westminster Hall, Nicollet Mall and Alice Rainville Place, Mpls.; 3 p.m. Dec. 17, Hamline Church, 1514 Englewood Av., St. Paul; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19, Capri Theater, 2027 W. Broadway, Mpls.; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21, Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, N. Cleveland and Laurel avenues, St. Paul; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22, Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $5-$48, available at 612-435-0046 or cantussings.org
Note: Friday's concert will be available for streaming through Jan. 2 at cantussings.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.