Nourishing Body Heart and Soul with Cantus Vocum

Cantus Vocum at Caribou Memorial Veterans Pavillion
Cantus Vocum at Caribou Memorial Veterans Pavillion

Nourishing body, heart and soul
A night with Cantus Vocum

Australian novelist Gregory David Roberts said, “Food is music to the body, music is food to the heart.” He might have added, conversation is music to the soul. Body, heart and soul were well nourished this past week at a very special 20th Anniversary celebration for the St. John’s chamber choir, Cantus Vocum.

St. John’s piano and voice teacher Chad Stride founded Cantus Vocum (meaning “the musical sound of voices”) in 1995 with encouragement from Dr. Douglas Dunsmore, a retired music professor and choral conductor. Both agreed that St. John’s would, as Stride said, “support a small semi-professional chamber choir.”

Since then the 20 voice choir has held annual Remembrance Day (For the Fallen) and Christmas (Night before Christmas) concerts, along with numerous other performances inside and outside St. John’s. Cantus Vocum also brought their music to an international audience through touring. To date, under Stride’s direction, they have performed in 14 countries. In July they will sing in Austria, Hungary and Slovakia.

Concert for veterans
Before attending a dinner at Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi, choir patrons were invited to begin the evening by joining Cantus Vocum at a concert for veterans held in the acoustically friendly atrium of the Caribou Memorial Veterans Pavilion. Many veterans attended and clearly enjoyed standards such as Danny Boy and the choir’s exceptionally beautiful rendition of Wayne Chaulk’s, Saltwater Joys.

I was privileged to meet Royal Canadian Navy veteran Charles Anderson. Signalman Anderson (aged 95) served in World War II. Originally from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, he ended up in St. John’s because of his wife. They met during the war when he was stationed here. He married his Hayward Avenue sweetheart in the city in 1945. They moved back here 11 years ago from Toronto at her request. When his health declined Anderson moved into the pavilion.

It was a joy to see contentment register in his eyes as he listened to Cantus Vocum sing, to see his dour expression turn happy. At the end of the concert I thanked him for his service to our country and said goodbye.

Shaved Duck with Pinto Beans
Shaved Duck with Pinto Beans

Family style
At Mallard Cottage we were served “family style”. Platters of food were laid in front of us. We helped ourselves and passed each dish along to a neighbour. Loaves of fresh granary style bread with butter, for example, preceded warmed dishes of pinto beans, shallot, spinach and shaved duck with chimichurri sauce. It was a dish that some might label cassoulet (a regional French recipe of meat and beans). Like cassoulet, all dishes were rustic: simple, fresh and good.

Europe’s renowned chef Auguste Escoffier famously spoke the words “faites simple” or “keep it simple” when advising cooks. As long as you have technique and perfect ingredients the results will be delicious and that is what Mallard Cottage achieved. Mallard’s cooks are masters at this style of cuisine.

Pork Sausage and Braised Turnip
Pork Sausage and Braised Turnip

Golden beets (a delightful change) with bok choy and delectable crispy pork cheek was followed by more porcine provender. Plump to the verge of bursting pork sausages were served with braised turnip, jus, mustard seeds and a sprinkling of almond garlic crumble.

One of my table neighbours was Joanne Dobbin. She has been a member of Cantus Vocum’s Board of Directors for a number of years. Dobbin believes the choir’s longevity is, in large measure, due to its “rich and emotionally engaging programs.”

Joanne Dobbin also finds the choir’s level of commitment to be remarkable. “They’re an adult ensemble with professional lives and families, so the time that they give to the choir is purchased at a personal price, and they give it maximum value by giving their best.”

Lobster Thermidor
Lobster Thermidor

Lobster thermidor was at the vanguard of three entrées and only slightly unconventional in that the lobster meat was served sans shell. Instead it was cosseted by a creamy pillow of puréed potato. Someone must have been keeping an eagle eye on the cooking lobster because it was tender to the point of delicate. A praiseworthy dish.

Spit roasted pork shoulder is among the best pork I’ve ever tasted. Mallard’s rivals the kind of authentic wood barbecued meat I’ve tasted in the Southern US. Served on root vegetables and accompanied by a dish of roasted potato, caramelized onion, pesto and shavings of parmesan, the shoulder was a formidable dénouement to our family style dinner.

Spit Roasted Pork Shoulder
Spit Roasted Pork Shoulder

Ruth Wakeham, one of Cantus Vocum’s founding singers (there in ‘95 when the experiment began) believes the choir has been successful because it has its own sound.

“We’re able to put our stamp on choral music from many different genres and sources while maintaining the sound of the original source. So, if we do a South African freedom song, it hopefully sounds like a South African freedom song, but also sounds like us.”

In looking toward the next 20 years Chad Stride hopes, as in the past, to commission more Canadian composers to create new music for Cantus Vocum. He also wants to continue to make Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada proud of this remarkable St. John’s chamber choir.

No doubt Cantus Vocum’s loyal following has every confidence maestro Stride and his 20 talented singers will do us proud.