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INTERVIEW: Cantus on Lorelei and Cross-Country Concertizing

The Boston-based Lorelei Ensemble, which joins Cantus for a concert this Thursday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

This Thursday will witness a rare choral event: the Twin Cities-based, all-male vocal ensemble Cantus sharing a program with the celebrated, Boston-based, all-female Lorelei Ensemble. The two ensembles will join forces for a combined concert of new and classic vocal pieces at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul.

Cantus Executive Director Joe Heitz and bass Chris Foss spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about the upcoming concert and the touring life.

The men of Cantus.

Where am I catching you now?

Joe Heitz: We’re both in the Twin Cities right now. I’m in my home office-

Chris Fpss: And I’m in mine.

Joe, how did the upcoming Cantus-Lorelei collaboration on Thursday come to be? Were you aware of the ensemble from your time in Boston?

JH: I was aware of them by reputation – certainly, Lorelei is very well-regarded. I used to work for the BSO and I understand that Lorelei has since done some great work with the BSO, too. Really, though, the reason that this is happening is that when I came to Cantus, the singers expressed an interest in working with the Lorelei Ensemble.

Cantus has a collaborative artistic director model, so the singers always discuss who they’d like to work with for these collaborative concerts; we had a lot of discussions about what the right fit is. We in turn discussed the idea with the Lorelei Ensemble’s management, and we’re delighted to make this happen.

Did you catch Lorelei’s residency at Macalester College in February 2014?

CF: Unfortunately, no – I think we were away on tour.

Where have you been most recently on tour?

CF: Last week, we were in Norman, OK, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma for a residency. Before that, we were in Seguin, Texas, at Texas Lutheran University (kind of between San Antonio and Austin). Next week, we’re heading to Pennsylvania State.

Joe Heitz, the Executive Director of Cantus. Photo by Adam Fieldson.

How do these bookings come to be – are they mostly the work of your artist management, are they the result of heavy networking at ACDA [the American Choral Directors Association’s annual conference], or…?

CF: We’re primarily represented by a company called Alliance Artist Management; they make the lion’s share of our bookings on the road. The seeds for those bookings are often planted by ACDA and events around the country, as well as our past lives, but we try and pass those things off to AAM to manage.

JH: At the same time, our home concerts in the Twin Cities tend to be self-produced: we make the arrangements and sell the tickets on our own. It’s only outside the Twin Cities that AAM books us.

How do you rehearse a collaboration like this? Flying the whole crew out to Boston twice a week seems a bit expensive…

CF: We’ve actually entirely programmed the show remotely, so our only rehearsal together is coming up pretty soon. Lorelei is flying in the day before; we have a 3- or 4-hour rehearsal together, and then we put up the show the next day.

Doing this rapid turnaround has turned out pretty well for us these last two years – we partnered with Chanticleer and Sweet Honey in the Rock for concerts. It’s kind of nerve-wracking, but it’s also the only way that we can make it work with our schedules…and it’s fantastic what you can do with such great professionals in the room.

Bass Chris Foss of Cantus. Photo by Curtis Johnson.

What’s on the program?

CF: Cantus and Lorelei are each doing their own sets for the first half, then coming together. Lorelei’s program includes a piece that they commissioned by David Lang (we also have commissioned David Lang, but decided that we should share the exposure with other composers and not do two Lang pieces on this concert program).

We open the second half of the program with Andrea Gabrielli’s Gloria, which is a 16-part piece for 4(!) different choirs – pretty epic. After that, we’ve got two pieces from the Sacred Harp tradition. (That’s an early American sound, but pieces are still being written more recently in that style, like Wondrous Love by William Duckworth, which we’re doing).

Also on the program is a new piece by Gabriela Lena Frank called Sun Quilts, commissioned by VocalEssence last year. Frank hasn’t written a lot for unaccompanied men’s choir, but we’re big fans. We’re also doing Cloud-Capped Towers by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which has really great harmonies. There’s also Sleep by Eric Whitacre and Abendlied by Joseph Rheinberger – another one of those classic choral repertoire pieces.

Why are you doing this particular concert at the Ordway?

CF: The Ordway is, for my money, one of the best-sounding venues in town – not just for orchestral music, but also choral music.

We also wanted a place big enough to house all the interest that people seem to be showing in this concert. I think there’s going to be a great energy in absolutely the perfect hall for this event.

The Ordway Concert Hall has the choir balcony behind on three sides of the stage, which opens up some possibilities for specialization. Are you going to be using these for the Gabrielli piece’s four choirs?

CF: We certainly could get adventurous, but it’s surprising how little time we have together. I imagine that we’ll explore the stage for this concert, but that we’ll end up just having several different formations, with each choir standing in their own space.

You’re both from Iowa. What’s drawn you to the Twin Cities and keeps you there?

JH: I’ve been on the East Coast for a total of about 10 years, and had been eager to be back in the Midwest a little closer to home and family. I was just delighted when the stars aligned with Cantus–to be in the arts and working for an organization that’s really at the top of its game and doing great things.

I’ve been here almost two years, now, and so glad to be here in Minnesota and the Twin Cities.

CF: For my part, I absolutely love the Twin Cities, but the reason I was drawn here was the job. Cantus is such a unique opportunity – both because you spend so much time singing, but also because you’re part of the artistic directing process. That opportunity just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country, and I’m here because of this job.

The Twin Cities artistic community is amazing and very rich, but probably 90% of the singers here have moved for the jobs. A lot come from NYC because they were working in the choral world, but for Cantus they move from all around the country for this wonderful job.

This question is for each of you – what’s a favorite piece on the program and why?

CF: I’ll give you two pieces, because I’m split. The first is the Gabrielli – music like that just doesn’t get written very much anymore, for a variety of reasons, but it’s something very special when you can pull off something that difficult. It’s something we’ll sweat over in the rehearsal room over, but it’ll be spectacular.

The other one is Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. It’s been one of my favorite pieces for a while, and it’s just captivating. It has this way of captivating the audience and making them sit forward and drawing them in, especially at the end. It’s just an amazing meditation on the process of falling asleep, and so hypnotic. Sleep casts a spell that takes a while to break.

JH: I share Chris’s enthusiasm for those, but I’m particularly excited about Abendlied. It’s the song that I’ve been listening to over and over on YouTube, and I can’t wait to hear Cantus and Lorelei come together for that.

I’m certainly excited to Lorelei’s solo pieces, but on the Cantus side I’m looking forward to them doing Beethoven’s Song of the Monks being followed immediately by “Gravedigger” by Dave Matthews. It’s an unexpected but intriguing juxtaposition.

CF: We also have a 5-minute work called We Two by Steven Sametz, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poetry that chronicles falling in love with someone and finding out who you are.

Who are two of your favorite contemporary vocal art music composers and why?

CF: I really enjoy the music of David Lang – Lorelei will be performing one of their commissions, and we’ve commissioned him as well before.

Eric Whitacre is on the top of his game at the top of the choral world, but I don’t know that we could ever afford to commission him…

It’s not a part of this concert, but this year we’re in partnership with an organization called Music Accord, where they partner ensembles and composers to partner together. We’re working with the composer Libby Larsen, who’s written us a 5-movement piece called You. Libby’s one of the most amazing composers out there, with about a dozen operas, plus works for chamber ensembles, vocal ensembles, and more. I think she was also the first female composer in residence at an American orchestra. We’re 100% lucky that she agreed to write something for us.

Do you have any ensemble-wide health and vocal wellness habits for touring?

CF: It’s different for everyone, although I know that there a few things that are universally accepted: a) you need to get enough sleep for who you are, to let your body repair itself, and b) you need to stay hydrated. People do get sick on the road, but our rehearsal process is calculated enough that hopefully we’ve built up enough muscle memory that we can still perform really well, even when we’re not at the top of our game.

Cantus and the Lorelei Ensemble perform this Thursday, September 20 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine