I've been remiss in covering classical music events in Bucks County, so I was pleased to be able to make my way to Newtown, PA last night to hear Cantus Novus perform with the Appalachian Brass Quintet at the Newtown Presbyterian Church. Holiday music concerts often rely on tired old favorites, but a quick glance a the program revealed a varied and interesting lineup of music spanning from the 15th century to pieces written within the past few years by local composers. Even the few well known pieces in the program were presented with fresh arrangements. Short works and constantly changing instrumentation and choral configurations supplied more variation, and the finishing touch to make sure the audience was engaged in the program, was the inclusion of two sing-along carols. The detailed program notes highlighted both the background of the pieces and specific musical attributes that were unique to the selections. This was programming at its finest.
Anticipation high for a performance to match the programming, the concert delivered from its first piece, a rousing fanfare with the chorus encircling the audience, to an enthusiastic encore of "We Wish you a Merry Christmas". Sandwiched in between were contrasting works such as the deeply emotional "Ave Maria" by Anton Bruckner with its wide dynamic range, to the serene arrangement by Jan Sandstrom of "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming". The familiar work took on an entirely new dimension with layered harmonies that stretched the chorus into a gorgeous rainbow of tones. Organist, Mark Dolan, pianist, Jihye Park, and gamba/cello/singer, Lynn Fergusson, contributed in a variety of instrument accompaniment parts.
The most surprising aspect of the performance, however, was the interchanging conducting roles. Artistic director, John P. Leonard, exchanged places with assistant conductor, Jayne Swank, on several pieces and joined the choir! I spoke with him after the concert and he said that he is interested in providing opportunities for others to gain experience; and, besides that, he loves to sing. A good sports coach is always on the lookout for young recruits to sustain the team, and it was clear by the wide range of ages in the chorus that Leonard followed this strategy as well. Leonard's gracious leadership and thoughtful programming leads me to believe that the future of Cantus Novus is full of promise. There's one more chance to see this concert on December 9th, so check here for details.
Disclaimer: This article is an observation from the viewpoint of a "regular member" of the audience, not a critical review.