Review: Cantus’ performance shows off impact of Weiser song cycle

12 July 2023

New York-based composer Alex Weiser was named a 2020 Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for music following the release of his debut album, “and all the days were purple.” A performance of Weiser’s song cycle of the same title by the low-voice choral group Cantus illustrates why the work received such accolades. The composer has created music that encompasses the listener with deeply felt sound. These are songs that demand attention and wonder.

Cantus performs the work this week in multiple locations, having opened the run last Tuesday at MacPhail Center for Music. Besides’ Weiser’s soul-filling work, the group performed a number of other works by Jewish composers, as well as “Kaddisch,” from “Deux mélodies hébraïques” (Two Hebrew Songs) by the non-religious French composer Maurice Ravel.

Cantus opens the concert with a choral piece by composer William Goldstein, who draws on text used during Rosh Hashanah. The vocal ensemble maintains eye contact with each other as they weave through Goldstein’s harmonies. The composition emphasizes the beauty of the words, sung in the Hebrew language. There’s a chiming clarity each time the singers pronounce “chayim” (life).

Following that prelude, Cantus takes on Weiser’s song cycle, comprising four poems written in Yiddish, two poems written in English, and two dissonant instrumental movements performed by a small chamber group of musicians (made of violin, viola, cello, piano, and vibraphone/glockenspiel). Each of the sections based on poems are performed by solo voices, making way for the individual singers of Cantus to share their gifts individually.

Weiser’s song cycle is book-ended by pieces based on poems by Anna Margolin, a Russian-American poet active in the New York Yiddish language literary scene in the early part of the 20th century. Sung in Yiddish, the works juxtapose a feeling of anxiety with a spiritual lightness.

Another of the Yiddish poems incorporated in the piece, “Benkshaft” (longing), uses text by Rachel Korn, who was evacuated from Poland at the start of World War II by the Soviet Union, and eventually immigrated to Canada in 1948. The sound of Korn’s text in Yiddish soars above a lovely accompaniment. The chords move up and down like rippling water beneath the poetry.

Weiser’s sections in English are poignant as well, particularly “Lines for Winter,” based on a poem by American Mark Strand.

After “and all the days are purple,” Cantus performs Nurit Hirsch’s “Oseh Shalom” (Prayer for Peace), performed a cappella by the whole chorus. That’s followed by Ravel’s “Kaddisch,” sung marvelously by tenor Matthew Shorten in Aramaic.

From there, Cantus performs three songs by Lazar Weiner, a Russian-American composer who composed in Yiddish. Each of the works mix together joy and sadness, as if gripping the verve of life even when it’s most painful.

Cantus concludes the concert with “Sim Shalom” (Grant Peace) by Jennaya Robinson. On Tuesday’s opening night concert, they also delivered a crowd-pleasing medley of tunes from “Fiddler on the Roof,” as an encore.

If you go

Who: Cantus

What: and all the days were purple

When: 11 a.m. Thursday, July 13 & 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 14

Where: Westminster Hall, 1200 S Marquette Ave, Minneapolis, and livestreamed Friday

Tickets: $36, pay-what-you-can options on Friday’s performance

Capsule: Cantus performs an impactful concert featuring “and all the days were purple” by Alex Weiser, other works by Jewish composers, and a piece by Maurice Ravel.

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