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REVIEW: The Last Cantus Concert (Of the Year)

A promotional photo of Cantus.

Cantus brought its 2018 performances to a close on Sunday with the final installment (for now) of its Christmas with Cantus concerts. The performance featured an array of classic music, some more contemporary numbers such as Joni Mitchell’s “The River”, and a new vocal work by Catherine Dalton.

That Cantus concerts will feature highly polished singing is a given; its singers invariably deliver silky-smooth vocals and breeze through difficult musical passages with ease. In keeping with the season, the arc of the program was presented in Lessons and Carols format, with spoken readings between sets of music. These readings did not add to the program, for reasons that had less to do with individual selections than a generally static quality in the afternoon entertainment.

Static? Yes, but not in the electric sense. Most of the music was performed at about the same tempo, dwelled in the same dynamic space, and generated a similar affect. Although the program was divided into clusters of songs interspersed with short readings, many of the consecutive songs (e.g., Cheryl Camm’s “Alleluia! Into the Light (A Miner’s Carol)” and Joni Mitchell’s “The River”, in the first set) came across as more of the same, rather than distinct and very different pieces of music. This was not abetted by the lesson readings being fluffy and forgettable, delivered with none of the engagement or interesting delivery that you might have expected from these singers.

This unexpected flatness was all the more surprising because it was at odds with the dynamic, pulsing energy that opened the program, with Brad Holmes’ arrangement of Todd Smith’s African “Noel”, propelled by percussion and a splendid terracing of added layers and entrances. Jacob Christopher’s sweet featured vocals in “The River” could not change the fact that, just two and half songs in, the program was sorely in need of a new mood.

The best song performances were, invariably, those that contained a sense of change and build – like the delicious rendition of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, and the group’s trademark encore of Bibel’s Ave Maria that closed the program. Even the Sherman Brothers’ “Feed the Birds” became more of a bedtime song, which is fine if you want to catch up on sleep and less desirable if you want your pulse quickened by music.

Basil Considine