The month of December is a perpetual rataplan of “and heaven and nature sing” mixed with “in fields where they lay” and infinite descants of “mild he lays his glory by” for any regular concert-goer especially those of us familiar with the rich, Midwestern choral tradition. Usually they all coalesce into a monolithic sounds-heard-during-the-holiday-rush. Occasionally, however, we are gifted with a rare performance that rises above just another holiday concert. Such was the case with Civic Music Association‘s presentation of the German vocal quintet Calmus on December 10th in Sheslow Auditorium on the Drake University campus. Both in programming and performance, the singers stunned and delighted the audience.
While there were the prerequisites such as Stille Nacht, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and White Christmas, Calmus’ “Christmas Carols of the World” program featured gems to keep even the most proficient church musicians intrigued. An early selection, the Ravenscroft Remember, O Thou Man arranged by Calmus baritone Ludwig Böhme, began with soprano Anja Pöche and countertenor Sebastian Krause ascending to the upper left and right staircases to perform their seraphic descending vocal lines into perfectly tuned intervals. In fact, there were quite a few instances of this sparkling pairing between soprano and countertenor throughout the program. The trio onstage: tenor Tobias Pöche, Böhme, and bass Manuel Helmeke provided fascinating harmonic texture before Pöche and Krause joined them again onstage for a later verse that accentuated the sanguine middle voices. To this ear, the Alice Tegner Betlehems Stjärna arranged by Robert Sund was the treasure of the evening. Imbuing the piece with dynamics to make the heart swell, the quintet displayed incredibly nuanced musicianship. Their ability to crescendo to the climax of the phrase while ever-so-slightly delaying the resolution of the suspension was exquisite.
When it comes to a cappella vocal ensembles, there can be an over-reliance on anemic vocalism to achieve blend within the group or a specific style. As their name suggests, Calmus allayed those fears immediately. Like a prism, they used their outstanding technique and musicianship to begin the concert in solemn unison and then break out into the full manifestation of their constituent vocal colors. While there were a few unfulfilled attempts at swagger, Calmus never missed an opportunity to play for laughs. It is clear that they prize their dedication to diverse musical styles and diction across multiple languages. So much the better for the audience was clearly tickled with the sheer number of languages in which they sang. Finally, the technical ability of each member of the group, from sotto voce to their most resonant, was impressive as soloists as well as in ensemble singing.
Would that all the concerts filling up our calendars during this festive month be a cause for introspection, stillness, fascination, elegance, and laughter such as this one.