The cool, clear Sunday afternoon in November I heard the Ann Arbor Cantata Singers performing in St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, there were twenty-six people in the chancel and about 260 people in the pews. Although I could remember a time a couple of decades ago when the Cantata Singers would almost fill the Michigan Theater, it was still quite a healthy showing for any group that had been performing so long — especially for one that had been through as much as the Cantata Singers had over the last three seasons. After forty-seven years as an organization and after three — count 'em, three — music directors in as many years, the Cantata Singers might well have dried up and blown away. That they didn't testifies to the strength of their commitment. That so many folks showed up to hear them testifies to the power of their performances.
No doubt some of the audience were there to show support for family and friends. And no doubt some of them were there because St. Andrew's is their church. But I'd suspect that most of the audience were there simply because they like to hear choral music sung with passionate enthusiasm by dedicated amateurs. If so, they surely got their money's worth. When it comes to passionate enthusiasm, few other groups of amateurs are as dedicated as the Cantata Singers.
In the big celebratory works that bracketed the program — the Te Deums of Britten and Vaughan Williams — they sang with immense energy and enormous gusto. In the more intimate smaller works, particularly the deeply touching "Evening Hymn" by Mrs. H. H. (Amy) Beach, they sang with tender expressivity and tremendous sensitivity. And in the best works, especially William Billings's awe-inspiring "Now Shall My Inward Joys Arise," they sang with the kind of inward intensity that makes the heart swell and the eyes tear.
Of course, because they are amateurs, the Cantata Singers were not flawless. They occasionally slipped out of tune, sometimes seemed a bit thin, and every once in a while appeared to lose their way in the music. But with the skillful conductor Warren Puffer Jones directing them and the talented organist Thomas Bandy accompanying them, their flaws were only flesh wounds and never fatal. Besides, the people in the audience weren't there for flawless; they were there for heartfelt. And in that, they were never disappointed.
The Cantata Singers' next concert, "Rise Up, My Love," a program of love songs from around the world, is on Sunday, February 11, at First Congregational Church.
[Review published February 2007]