This is their song: Cantus emerges from isolation with new music and a bright outlook
For a few grim weeks in March this year, it seemed as if the sky were falling in on the eight members of the all-male vocal group Cantus.
Coronavirus had just arrived in Minnesota, bringing with it a slew of social-distancing protocols and the wholesale cancellation of live performances.
Cantus was instantly affected, losing all of the remaining concerts in its 2019-20 season, and a gala it had planned to mark the 25th anniversary of the ensemble's founding.
Tenor Paul Scholtz remembers that period with a shudder.
"Our revenue streams were being cut off, and we knew we might not even be able to meet the next week," he said.
But from the enveloping darkness light emerged quickly, in the shape of the COVID-19 Sessions, a set of filmed performances Cantus recorded in an intense period immediately before lockdown shuttered arts activity in Minnesota.
"We just felt that if we want to make any music at all, it has to happen right now," Scholtz recalls. "So we set about making a string of recordings in Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis."
The COVID-19 Sessions rapidly touched a raw nerve at a period when many more people than usual are housebound and craving emotional connection.
The 19 videos have collectively gone viral on Facebook, racking up a total of 1.7 million views from a worldwide audience. One song — a vocal arrangement of Sibelius' "Finlandia" — has proved particularly popular, with more than a million views.
The COVID-19 Sessions were important in other ways, too, providing a model for how Cantus might approach its fall season. With no audiences permitted, how were any of the scheduled programs supposed to happen?
The answer was Camp Cantus, a solution devised by the eight singers themselves. It involved them self-isolating at home for two weeks in August, then taking a test for the coronavirus.
When the tests were negative, the singers drove to a farmland location near Decorah, Iowa, where a former Cantus board member had loaned them a house to rehearse and record in.
Cooking was one decidedly non-COVID protocol the singers had to sort out equitably between them.
"Most of us did meal exchanges, although different artists have different cooking abilities," Scholtz explains wryly. "One singer, whose name I won't mention, just cooked some brats."
"There Lies the Home" was what emerged from the two weeks spent at the inaugural Camp Cantus. A video recital focusing on ocean journeys and why people make them, it streams from Oct. 2-4 on the Cantus website at a suggested price of $20 per household, with a pay-what-you-can option as low as $5.
A second Camp Cantus is already planned for this month, with two further programs on the recording agenda.
"Brave" examines "what it means to identify as a man in a society that prizes conformity over personal authenticity," and streams from November 6-8.
"Lessons and Carols From Our Time," a contemporary take on the Christmas service popularized by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, runs in two parts from Dec. 11-13 and Dec. 18-20.
Scholtz is looking forward eagerly to a second sojourn in Decorah, but is realistic about how rapidly the best laid plans can switch in the coronavirus era.
"We're aiming for October, but who knows? Somebody might get sick in the quarantine period. You just have to appreciate the opportunity of singing while you have it."
Both the COVID-19 Sessions and Camp Cantus are major good-news stories at a time when live choral concerts have been impossible, and arts groups have been scrabbling to link meaningfully with their audience.
And other good things have been happening to Cantus, too. Amid a period of general downturn for the music industry, the group has cemented a relationship with the English record company Signum.
Signum is releasing tracks from the COVID-19 Sessions as digital downloads on a single-by-single basis, and has plans to issue full albums by Cantus in the future.
And in July there was another major coup, when Cantus signed a management agreement with IMG Artists, a prestigious agency with an international reach and reputation.
Cantus executive director Joe Heitz regards these recent developments as highly significant for the ensemble's long-term future.
"We're particularly excited about IMG's global network," Heitz says. "Cantus has toured before, but we're especially keen to build a bigger European presence."
For now, Heitz's hope is that Cantus will be able to survive financially in an environment where ticket sales are zero and other sources of revenue are limited.
"Cantus gets about two-thirds of its budget each year from earned revenue, so we've been hit hard," he says. "But even though the short term is daunting and complicated by COVID, we have some really exciting things in place."
"There's a great deal of uncertainty at present, and anxiety will increase if we're not able to get a vaccine and roll it out this spring and summer."
But with two new members on board — baritones Jeremy Wong and Brandon Martin were recently hired through online auditions — Scholtz and his seven co-singers are looking optimistically toward a brighter future.
"People need comfort, they need music, and more than ever we need to build bridges," he says.
"Music is well positioned to help engender empathy and see other people's experiences, and so I think the work of Cantus is more important than ever."