Cantori

In local cultural annals these few weeks are generally thought of as the musical doldrums, the uneventful time between the end of the Philharmonic season and the Bowl. This year, however, this interval has hardly lived up (or down) to its name. Count the blessings: a Handel opera in Santa Monica, a new-music festival in East L.A. and, this past Wednesday, an uncommonly interesting and lively program of American music at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, sung by that excellent group that goes by the generic name of I Cantori (“The Singers”).
The group, under its founder and conductor Edward Cansino, is now in its 14th year; to my embarassment, this was my first encounter, but not my last. The ensemble consists of eight singers plus, on occasion, Mr. Cansino. They sing with finesse and a most attractive tone. Somewhere along the line, someone made the admirable decision that the sight of a vocal group merely lined up in concert formation might lead to boredom; at Wednesday’s concert, in the informal setting of the church’s Fellowship Hall, the singers moved freely around the performing area, like entertainers at a particularly friendly salon. One of their number, baritone Kenneth Knight, even did some decent baton-twirling tricks during a light-hearted group of Charles Ives songs.
It was an interesting program, ranging from 1894 (the year of Ives’ mettlesome choral setting of Psalm 67) to 1989 (the year of the program’s opening work, Cansino’s own “Design.”) Along the way there were two marvelous Joan La Barbara pieces involving advanced vocal techniques — one, called “Time(d) {cq}Trials and Unscheduled Events” was composed for the 1984 Olympics, and consists mostly of heavy athletic breathing in strict rhythms) — some powerfully conceived short works by Copland and Barber, a set of rather strained, anti-lyrical songs by George Rochberg from his pre-post-romantic years, {cq} and some of George Crumb’s Madrigals, settings of tiny fragments of Garcia Lorca texts.
For leavening there was also a most beguiling set of songs and dances from Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha.” Maybe the opera itself is too sweetly naive to persist in the repertory as a whole. Maybe also the sight of these¬† indigenous pieces being sung and romped to by a concert group in white tie and ball gowns strains the image somewhat. The results, nevertheless, were enchanting; one of the numbers was wisely brought back as an encore at program’s end.
Along the way all of the group members had their solo flings: Sandra Stowe in the Rochberg songs and Diane Thomas in the Madrigals were especially fine. Three instrumentalists helped out where needed: pianist Lorna Eder, flutist Lisa Edelstein and percussionist Timm {cq}  Boatman.
Mr. Cansino’s own piece consisted of a medley of shreds and patches out of vocal works from Gregorian Chant to the present, all sung more or less simultaneously: a trick nicely managed by, say, Luciano Berio in the collage movement from his “Sinfonia,” managed less well in this instance. Fortunately, it was placed first on the program; considering the delights that ensued it was soon, deservedly, forgotten.