When you hear the words "vocal ensemble," you might picture a concert filled with selections from composers like Schubert, maybe some spirituals and perhaps an American traditional or two. And, to an extent, Cantus does touch upon those expectations.
But the nine-member, all-male group is much more than what you expect, says tenor Shahzore Shah.
"We perform just about anything we can get our hands on," Shah said. "We do everything from medievel chants to arrangements of modern pop classics. ... This year, we have 'Gravedigger' by Dave Matthews, next to 'Lamentations Over Boston' by William Billings.
Cantus will perform at Penn State's University Park campus this week and do a brief residency at Penn State Altoona.
"If it's good music that works with our theme, we find a way to work it in."
Locals can find out what Cantus "works in" this week, when the group does a brief residency at Penn State. First, the group will hold an open rehearsal of their piece "If Ye Love Me" from 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Titelman Study of the Misciagna Center for Performing Arts on the Penn State Altoona campus.
At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Cantus will present its current touring show, "A Place For Us," at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on the Penn State University Park campus.
If you go
What: "A Place For Us," presented by Cantus
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, Penn State University Park campus
Admission: Tickets are $42 for adults, $32 for those ages 18 and younger and $12 for University Park students. Tickets are available by calling 863-0255 or 800-ARTS-TIX, in person at Eisenhower Auditorium, the Bryce Jordan Center and Penn State Downtown Theatre Center or online at www.cpa.psu.edu
What: "Seeking Sonic Space: Science and Serendipity," presented by Cantus
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Edith Davis Eve Chapel, Penn State Altoona campus
Admission: Free, but tickets are required. Tickets are available at the Misciagna Center for Performing Arts Center box office or at the door. Free parking is available in the Misciagna parking lot after 3 p.m.
There will be a choral workshop open to the public from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, also at the Misciagna Center. Cantus will finish its Penn State residency with a free performance of the program "Seeking Sonic Space: Science and Serendipity" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Edith Davis Eve Chapel.
Shah, Cantus's education outreach coordinator, is excited about the opportunity to teach both the public and Penn State Altoona's vocal groups.
"This is a really interesting opportunity for us," the 36-year-old said. "It seems like every other year or so, we get to spend a few days at a college like this. They're allowing us to work with as many students as possible.
"It's the kind of thing we love to do, but we never have time to do."
According to Shah, Cantus began in 1995 with four students from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The quartet wanted to continue singing choral music after graduation and began performing as a group with like-minded singers. In 2000, the members of Cantus went professional, forming a nonprofit organization and basing themselves in Minneapolis.
Shah said the original four recruited first other St. Olaf's students and then began searching for new singers across the country. The group always stays constant at nine singers - five tenors, two baritones and two basses. The men in the group range in age from the mid-20s to 40.
"Everyone in the group has a choral entertainment background," he said. "You'll have everything from one guy who already had a career in opera before joining the group and a few who came right out of undergraudate school."
"There are no remaining original members, but we have one member who is one of the original St. Olaf's graduates, Adam. I think he said he's been here for 17 years."
Shah started with Cantus in 2005. A native of Chicago who grew up in Stillwater, Minn., Shah has degrees in vocal performance, music education and French from Lawrence University and Conservatory of Music.
"I was in New York doing freelance work and studying and one of the gigs I did involved two members of Cantus who came out to do an opera," he said. "After spending a week together, they asked me if I would be interested in auditioning some time.
"So I came and heard a performance and I thought, 'This would be an amazing thing to be a part of all the time.'"
Two years later, he was called to audition and did well enough to join the group. Shah says the group is very much a democracy, no matter how long a member has been there.
We're self-led," he explained. "We perform published music, but we put it all together ourselves. We don't have one leader, we take turns."
Their latest album came right out of that self-led style. "Songs of a Czech: Dvorak and Janacek for Men's Voices" links the music of famous Czech composers Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek.
"That was a really interesting look at how our process happens," Shah said. "We were just brainstorming about music we wanted to do and haven't done yet. Someone said music from Dvorak and another said music from Janacek. And in doing research, we discovered that they had a great friendship.
"Everybody was really happy with how it came off, but we were worried that it might be a bit too academic."
Cantus's time at Penn State Altoona is part of the Center for the Performing Arts Classical Music Project, which lets students, faculty and community engage with classical artists.
"It's our third year partnering with the main campus where they bring a guest artist and they work for a day in State College and a day down here," said Timothy Melbinger, lecturer in music at Penn State Altoona and one of the event's organizers. "It's a big grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that helps us do this."
Melbinger chose Cantus for the residency out of the CPA's 2013-14 lineup of classical artists.
"It's not an ensemble that might ordinarily come to Blair County," he explained. "In the past, we've brought a string quartet, a brass quintet and a string duo to play. So one of the reasons I selected Cantus is because it's all vocal. I keep trying to bring something new."
In addition to the work the group will do with the students and community, Melbinger said, it gives Penn State Altoona a chance to present a concert that they couldn't usually get.
"Unfortunately we just don't have a concert season where we bring in a lot of performers," he said. "So students know that there's only a few opportunities every year to hear [this kind of] music and interact. It's an opportunity that you wouldn't normally get even at a bigger school."
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.