The vocal ensemble Cantus looks back on its past and celebrates its 27th anniversary

It started with a lament.

Four freshmen having dinner in the cafeteria at St. Olaf College in Northfield in 1995 shared a common disappointment that their days of singing with an all-male vocal group might be over. While auditioning for the famed St. Olaf Choir the following fall would be exciting, they would miss singing in smaller, all-male a cappella ensembles. So …

“We made a commitment to get together once in a while on Saturdays and sing a few songs and then have lunch before we hit the books,” tenor Al Jordan said.

Cantus was born.

The brainchild of this cafeteria conversation is now one of America’s few full-time professional vocal ensembles. Having grown his audience through numerous annual tours and a series of home concerts at venues in the Twin Cities area, Cantus has 19 albums to his name and three prestigious Chorus America awards, including his highest honor, the Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence.

At 27, Cantus is taking a break to celebrate his journey so far. The band intended to mark their 25th anniversary in 2020 by bringing together as many of their 40+ alumni as possible for a concert. COVID-19 has delayed such a gathering until this Sunday’s performance at St. Paul’s Ordway Concert Hall which will be followed by a gala at the nearby RiverCentre.

A piece that helped launch Cantus was “Ave Maria” by 20th-century German composer Franz Biebl.

“The fact that we wanted to form a group to sing was based on the fact that Chanticleer’s unparalleled recording of this work was familiar to us,” said tenor Brian Arreola.

San Francisco-based male vocal ensemble Chanticleer was something of a role model for Cantus, and the two bands periodically collaborated on gigs, including one at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in January.

Unlike Chanticleer, which was built on the vision of its founder, Louis Botto, and his successor as artistic director, Joseph Jennings, Cantus has always been a collaborative effort, with each member contributing to their artistic decisions.

“I think it’s important that [original members] Erick Lichte, Kjell Stenberg and I were all cellists, so had a lot of experience with the unique challenges and rewards of the collaborative chamber music process,” Arreola said. choral music, which makes Cantus somewhat singular.”

A year after its founding, bass Timothy Takach joined the band.

“During those early rehearsals, it was clear that almost everyone in the room had an opinion about how we make music,” Takach recalls. “Giving a concert that has been scheduled and rehearsed with input from all the singers is different. We were singing for each other and with them, not to fulfill one person’s vision.

Takach found the collaboration so rewarding that he stayed on for 17 years, tied with baritone Adam Reinwald for Cantus’ longest tenure.

“The first concert on campus that I remember [in the 1995-96 school year] was a gig we put on ourselves,” Jordan said. “We booked the biggest big room in one of the dorms and some of our mothers were kind enough to cook and pack snacks and treats so we could have a party. Off campus, I remember it was at a church in Forest Lake.”

The band’s first gig outside of Minnesota was in 1998 at the Newport Music Festival in Rhode Island, now known as the Newport Classical.

“We first needed the audacity to think our artistic product was good enough that audiences beyond the choral boundaries of Minnesota would be interested in what we had to offer,” Arreola said.

“[Former member] Phil Moody must be credited for his tenacity and courage to single handedly generate a tour that we will embark on in the summer of 1998,” added Arreola. “Based on that gig at the Newport Music Festival, and maybe another ‘real’ presenter, he organized a six-week tour of the Atlantic coast that generated enough revenue for us to pay ourselves – 13 between us – about what we would have earned from our summer jobs.

At the end of the tour, a band meeting in Princeton, NJ led to the majority of the band deciding to stop being a college band and “go pro”.

“Once we saw the success of the tour, we made a commitment to let the other younger members graduate and then work full time,” Jordan said. “I think the biggest key to our success is that we didn’t realize how difficult it should have been and how lucky we were to see the pieces fall into place the way they did. .”

Arreola knew this business was going to work after a gig in the Philadelphia area.

“The first tour included a performance at Longwood Gardens [an arboretum west of Philadelphia]and it was an amazing venue,” he said. “We felt like real professionals.

Jordan’s epiphany came two years later.

“After we had the chance to tour for a few summers, we went to a showcase where a lot of different presenters from all over the country came to see different acts and booked them,” Jordan said. “Once we played and saw the response we got from the crowd, I think most of us knew at that moment that we had a real shot at it.

“That first showcase showed me that there is a world where performance and performance art can thrive. And that we can be a part of it.”

Cantus Anniversary Concert

When: 3 p.m. Sun.

Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

Tickets: $128 to $35, available at 651-224-4222 or

Rob Hubbard is a classical music writer from Twin Cities. Contact him at

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