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Cantus’ tour dates and home concerts were being canceled, and it was clear there would be only a limited window in which to sing together before the world went on pause. What would social distancing and prohibitions on large gatherings mean for vocal music, our communities, and the world at large?
'We honestly thought it was possible this might be the last time we could all sing together', says bass Chris Foss.
The artists of Cantus recorded these 19 tracks with an enormous amount of uncertainty about what the next weeks and months would bring. The repertoire that was chosen is a mix of pieces they would have performed in concert and on tour that spring, along with works that have come to be inextricably linked to Cantus, like Ysaÿe M Barnwell’s Wanting memories, Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, and Sibelius’ Finlandia. The COVID-19 sessions were first shared online in the spring of 2020 and racked up millions of views from grateful fans glad to have new music from Cantus.
The notes accompanying the tracks are a time capsule back to those uncertain first months of the pandemic. They are directly quoted from the original postings of each video and the date of original post has been included for reference. They not only lend context for the pieces, but for the performances and initial reception of the sessions as well.
Cantus’ vision is to give voice to shared human experiences, and these performances were an offering from the ensemble in solidarity with their community at a time of great turmoil and unease. The pieces span a wide breadth of emotion, from joy to sorrow to wonder to pain. The performances themselves are informed by the emotional states in which they were recorded—heightened at different times in different ways.
'We made the COVID-19 sessions as an offering to our community', said Foss. 'But with the tremendous audience response, we were reminded how deeply art matters, especially in times like those we have endured since those chilly March days, when we made a choice to respond to fear and uncertainty by doing what we love, which is making music together.'
Sibelius Finlandia (March 21, 2020)
We couldn’t think of a more meaningful piece to kick off the COVID-19 sessions, recorded during this time of isolation and uncertainty. We have been performing this song since nearly the ensemble’s beginning some 25 years ago, and we hope it reminds you that you are not alone. We are in this together.
Valverde Darest, O soul (April 7, 2020)
Mari Esabel Valverde’s Darest, O soul is a piece from our touring show One Giant Leap. In that program it helped to celebrate the scientific luminaries who dared to walk toward the unknown. Walt Whitman’s poem offers fresh urgency during this pandemic.
Nakayama/Christopher Sunayama (March 24, 2020)
We had been preparing this arrangement of a simple and beautiful Japanese folk song for our spring show, There Lies the Home, before it was postponed. Amidst the uncertainty of this crisis, we find reassurance in the constants, be they waves crashing on a shore or the inevitable dawning of a new day.
Traditional/Gibbs Steal away (March 28, 2020)
We programmed Stacey V Gibbs’ arrangement of Steal away for our spring show There Lies the Home, which had focused on journeys by sea. It was part of a set highlighting the forced travel of Africans in slave ships to the United States and their realities after arrival.
So many of us have been moved in our lives by the deep emotionality of traditional spirituals. Some of the richest and most compelling art is borne out of real human tragedy and suffering. Although we at Cantus cannot truly empathize with the enslaved person’s experience, we are grateful to share this beautiful music, and we remember this terrible history.
This coded spiritual depicts the trials of slaves while simultaneously communicating opportunities to escape bondage and persecution. It was also a song of hope sung in the working fields and worship services of the oppressed as they longed for freedom and heaven. (Stacey V. Gibbs)
Alfvén Gryning vid havet
We originally programmed Gryning vid havet by Hugo Alfvén as the dramatic closing piece to the first half of our show There Lies the Home, a program about voyages at sea. Alfvén’s piece starts calmly before building to a nearly unsustainable climax, with the last six bars sung at a double forte at the extremes of the vocal range to mimic the terror and excitement of an ocean storm.
Traditional/Bartholomew/Erb Shenandoah (May 9, 2020)
Certain songs are imbued with meaning through their shared history among singers and listeners. Shenandoah certainly holds a special place for us and our audience; we have spent hours with it in rehearsal, toured with it internationally, and performed it with the students in our High School Residency program. The isolation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted us to look forward with hope to that time when we could share this song and others with our communities near and far.
Hildegard O frondens virga (May 12, 2020)
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) is one of our earliest and best-known female composers. She was an influential religious figure and composer at a time when it was nearly impossible for a woman to have a say in public or spiritual life. She has been sainted by the Roman Catholic Church and continues to be an important figure in music history. Her compositions have stood the test of time, and we performed O frondens virga as a part of our 2019 Holiday program, Three Tales of Christmas, helping to tell the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Christmas; or, The Good Fairy.
Whitacre Lux aurumque (March 31, 2020)
We brought this piece back into repertoire specifically to share it with all of you. Eric Whitacre and his compositions need no introduction in our field, and millions of listeners have enjoyed his music across the world. He is a gracious collaborator, and we had the pleasure to sing with Eric at the American Choral Directors Association’s National conference here in Minneapolis a few years ago. He’s also been in attendance at several of our performances over the years. At every opportunity he is quick to offer words of encouragement and appreciation, and he is always interested in discussing ways to make music more accessible and inspiring.
Dunphy It's strange about stars … (May 5, 2020)
It’s strange about stars … is the second piece by Melissa Dunphy that we have programmed. We had the pleasure to perform What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? on our 2016 touring show, and we met Melissa on tour that same year after a performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. We have been energized to work with her again. It’s strange about stars … helped to tell the story of The Little Match Girl in our 2019 Holiday program, Three Tales of Christmas. We chose the piece as an aural setting for the moment in which the girl’s vision of a lighted Christmas tree is transfigured into the stars of the night sky.
Ešenvalds Stars (April 14, 2020)
The beauty and loneliness in Sara Teasdale’s poem Stars are eloquently captured in composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’ setting. We have all gazed up at the night sky with wonder at its majesty. We chose to record in the underground Westminster parking garage first for its acoustic, which gives the piece a stunning aural dimension. With the lockdown, it has almost become a metaphor for those of us feeling increasingly trapped and isolated. We sing a song about the stars, 50 feet underground.
Foss Beyond (May 19, 2020)
The act of looking up at the night sky is a most humbling experience. Humanity has been stargazing for millions of years, and yet we still feel wonder and awe every time we step outside into the starry night. Even today, with all that science has discovered about the world and the universe, we don’t have very far to go at all to feel small and insignificant. No one captured that sentiment better than Katherine Lee Bates (of America the beautiful fame) when she composed her poem Beyond more than a hundred years ago. When faced with the unknown, we can all aspire not to be afraid, but to be curious. Perhaps our greatest defense against fear is the question mark.
Betinis Be like the bird (April 28, 2020)
'Be like the bird that, pausing in her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her—and sings—knowing she hath wings.' Abbie Betinis’ Be like the bird with text from Victor Hugo is a song we were particularly excited about including on the COVID-19 sessions. We hope that Abbie’s intention, combined with this cultural moment and our underground performance setting, will have special resonance for you. Here is Abbie’s program note in full:
I wrote this canon just after completing cancer treatment for the second time. My family and I sent it out as our annual Christmas card in 2009. And—while I couldn’t have foreseen it at the time—it would turn into my mantra over the next year, while I underwent a third cancer diagnosis and bone marrow transplant.
My cousin Sarah Riley and I discovered the text quite by accident. In October 2009, our grandfather, the Rt Rev John H Burt (aka Christmas reveler and merry-maker, lover of music and literature, and inspiring leader and activist) had died. After his funeral, and after an impromptu family round-sing (common in the Burt family), Sarah and I were sitting on Grandpa’s old couch, reading through some of the sermons he had written and delivered throughout his long life. Sarah is co-director of an incredible program called High Rocks, a comprehensive and unique school for girls founded by her mom, Susan Burt, in the mountains of rural West Virginia.
Sarah and I realized that Grandpa had quoted this lovely Victor Hugo text in a few sermons over the years, always to inspire courage in the face of adversity. It struck me as a surprisingly hopeful text befitting a difficult year, but it also moved me to tears to think of the work that my Aunt Susie and now my cousin herself, sitting there next to me on the couch, are doing to change the world—one girl at a time.
So I dedicate this carol to High Rocks for Girls. May High Rocks continue to educate, empower, and inspire each girl to know that ‘she hath wings.’
Allan this brightening silence (May 23, 2020)
Kathleen Allan’s this brightening silence was a piece originally commissioned by Newman Sound Men’s Choir in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Newfoundland Sealing Disaster. The text was composed by her husband Benton Roark and she describes the piece as 'a poetic depiction of loss and hope'. We prepared this piece as a part of our spring show, There Lies the Home, as a moment to remember lives lost at sea and specifically refugees escaping Syria by boat to the coast of Greece.
Barnwell Wanting memories (April 25, 2020)
Ysaÿe M Barnwell’s Wanting memories is a deeply moving text and composition, and it is a favorite within the ensemble and with our audiences. Ysaÿe M Barnwell and Sweet Honey in the Rock® have been inspirations for Cantus for much of the ensemble’s history. Their commitment to social justice and relevant programming along with their incredible artistry are attributes that inform and inspire our own music-making. Each time we perform this piece, it strikes us in new ways, and we hope it can be a moment of reflection and gratitude during this time of isolation.
Biebl Ave Maria (April 18, 2020)
Cantus began 25 years ago at St Olaf College in Minnesota with four undergraduate students. They first expanded their number to seven to sing this very song. Those founding members were inspired by the chamber process, and those collaborative tenets inform everything we do at Cantus to this day. The Franz Biebl Ave Maria has become an audience and ensemble favorite at Cantus for the way it so beautifully captures the power of voices joined in song.
Gibson/Hassilev/Yarbrough There's a meeting here tonight (April 4, 2020)
One of the things we treasure most about ensemble singing—and singing with Cantus specifically—are the strong bonds of community that are built while interpreting and performing music together. Bob Gibson’s There’s a meeting here tonight, made famous by the gospel duo Joe and Eddie, is one of our absolute favorite expressions of the joy of singing together. During this time of pandemic, this may be one of the things that we are missing the most—being able to make music together.
Ramsey That which remains (June 13, 2020)
Andrea Ramsey’s That which remains is the perfect sentiment for the COVID-19 sessions. Helen Keller’s text beautifully expresses how so many of us are feeling about our musical communities amidst this pandemic: 'What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose.'
Traditional/Rudoi Yonder come day (April 11, 2020)
Yonder come day, Paul John Rudoi’s arrangement of the traditional Georgia Sea Island melody and text, is infused with energy and hope for a brand-new day. Paul’s narrative arrangement is not just another medley of spirituals. His choice to combine Yonder come day, a spiritual championed by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, with specific spirituals well known for coded messages was intentional, shedding light on the hope required to move beyond the horrific atrocities millions encountered because of American slavery, Jim Crow-era tactics, and more. Ultimately, the piece is a testament to the courage of the enslaved, a statement of hope for anyone marginalized, and a small part in the continuing conversation about our shared American history.
Joel Lullabye (Goodnight, my angel)
We’ve sung Billy Joel’s Lullabye (Goodnight, my angel) many times over the years, and it has a way of seeping into your soul. It’s a song about that most fundamental relationship between a parent and a child. Billy Joel’s words are at once heart-warming and heart-rending to any parent who has held their child and sung them to sleep.
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