Cantus brings season’s greetings and life lessons to Hancher with holiday concert ‘Christmas with Cantus: Into the Light’

On Dec. 1, the low-voice Cantus ensemble performed its holiday concert ‘Christmas with Cantus: Into the Light’ at Hancher, bringing season’s greetings and inspirational life lessons to the community.



Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

Beneath the warm glow of golden stage lights, the Cantus vocal ensemble took to the stage in crisp blue suits and kind smiles. With only brief glances to one other and a starting note, they began to fill the Hancher auditorium with deep and rich harmonies.

The Cantus ensemble performed its holiday concert ‘Christmas with Cantus: Into the Light’ at Hancher Auditorium on Dec. 1. Cantus is a low-voice ensemble from Minnesota founded in 1995. 

Thursday’s performance marks its second experience working with Hancher — it also performed at Hancher when it was under construction in 2015. This is, however, the ensemble’s first experience with the new auditorium.

The choir values mentoring young musical students, and is committed to providing audiences with enjoyable concert experiences. Their concert at Hancher is their first performance of the holiday season this year. 

The ensemble performed without microphones or a conductor. They used only the natural acoustics of the auditorium, the music on their iPads, and their own synchronicity. The first song introduced the Christmas spirit to the audience with an upbeat, lilting tune and the jovial expressions of the eight ensemble members. 

‘Christmas with Cantus: Into the Light’ is a show inspired by the Festival of Lessons and Carols, a religious service given on Christmas Eve by the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge that discusses lessons of life drawn from different texts.

Divided into nine different thematic lessons based in prevalent cultural and societal contexts, Cantus performed a variety of classic and modern carols, along with renditions of several powerful poems. The ensemble collaborated with local Minnesotan poet ShaVunda Brown, who curated all of the poems for this season. 

“I think the poems that they share tell really great stories and make really important points about society,” said Lisa Mascardo, a North Liberty resident who attended the show with her husband. “And then the music just reinforces the message.”

Most of the lessons were introduced by a poem, several of which were written by Brown. Each piece was strongly emotional, and communicated the lesson’s theme through its literature. 

One particularly powerful piece was read to the audience by ensemble member Rod Kelly Hines, the second newest member of the ensemble who has been with Cantus for two seasons now. The poem, “Black Girls Don’t Dream of Blue Eyes Anymore” by ShaVunda Brown, emphasized the beauty of Black femininity. 

For a few songs, the ensemble incorporated instruments like the guitar and the drums. In the case of an African song called “Kujichagulia,” ensemble members played the drums and used a shaker. They added steady rhythm to the fast-paced and upbeat vocals that filled the auditorium. 

While some songs were performed in a jazzier style with smooth swing and snapping, others took on a slower, more reflective tone. The enraptured audience remained engaged with the ensemble for the entirety of the performance, taking pleasure in the soft ring of their voices and their expressive stage presence. 

Matthew Van Maanen, an attendee and friend of an ensemble member, had heard the choir perform in recordings and online concerts during the COVID-19 lockdown, but seeing them live created a much more energetic atmosphere.

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“You don’t get that,” said Maanen. “You don’t get it from virtual, you don’t get it from a recording, but seeing something like this live is a lot more powerful, especially the lessons. And everything has more of an effect.”

The show ended with two encore pieces, one being the birthday song for a dedicated fan in the audience, and the other being a fun and bouncy spiritual that had the audience gleefully clapping along. As the ensemble took their final bow, everyone rose to their feet.

Ensemble member Hines was proud of the concert and thrilled with the enthusiastic audience. 

“We hope that audiences take away a message of hope, a message of going out into the world and inspiring change, celebrating all of the good things that have happened, and appreciating all of that and how it can ultimately result in growth and opportunity to learn more about who you are as an individual,” Hines said.

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