Cantus Ensemble

"Cantus is also... a desire to approach the contemporary music with high performing and professional criteria; a desire to discover the New and the Unknown; the one that brought us all together. We want this Journey that is about to begin to be as interesting as possible, that it lasts as long as possible and that it is always filled with Curiosity and Wonder..."
- Berislav Šipuš in 2001, the year when the Cantus Ensemble was founded

For many years a large number of Zagreb ensembles filled a years-long gap between two Music Biennales Zagreb (MBZ) in their own ways - by giving individual performances and occasionally also by giving first performances of works by Croatian composers. This was also the reason why it was necessary to found, over and over again, a resident ensemble of a flexible and non-standard line-up that could comply with the heterogeneity of scores and the peculiarities of composers' demands. An unconventional instrumental ensemble could not be created out of the existing ensembles, hence in 2001 Berislav Šipuš, who was at the time the artistic director of the MBZ, chose the most prominent Croatian musicians and with the support of MBZ's General director, Ivo Josipović, founded Croatia's first permanent esnemble for contemporary music - Cantus Ensemble.The success of the ensemble at the MBZ 2011, with a cycle of four concerts day after day, presenting ten first performances (24-27 April) was met with a powerful response, such that their parent organization, the Croatian Composers' Society, has decided to support the ensemble as its long-term project. Having filled out a decades-long void reserved for performances of the extinct production of contemporary music that included work on new compositions and their promotion, i.e. the interpretation of the compositional heritage of the last century (mainly from the 1950s onward), the Cantus Ensemble established its own place and became a representative participant on the Croatian contemporary music scene. It has now become a usual practice for Croatian composers to dedicate their new compositions to the ensemble directly, not only by means of expected commissions.

Ten years after their first concert in April 2001, the Ensemble still continues to perform in an almost identical line-up, managed by their permanent artistic director and conductor Berislav Šipuš. During this period, their programme has expanded and now includes almost 400 performed works, 90 of which are first performances, while the stylistic pluralism of the 20th and 21st centuries that characterizes their artistic profile will undoubtedly ensure their long-term existence. One of those new works (Olja Jelaska's Butterflies) earned a flattering title of the best artistic achievement in 2005 and won the Josip Štolcer Slavenski Award. The composition Dreamers by Mladen Tarbuk won the same award in 2002, also in their interpretation. Another part of the Cantus Ensemble's singularity is its own summer ten-day artistic workshop (Vis, Zagreb, Grožnjan) organized for the first time in 2003 and in 2008 within intense collaboration with Dutch Gaudeamus Fondation, Festival Gaudeamus Music Week and Croatian Music Youth. In 2006 ensemble had successful concerts at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, Osor Music Evenings and Omiš Culture Summer and from than on ensemble is a continuous participant of Croatian music scene. From the concert season 2006/2007 ensemble has its own concert cycle Cantus & Lisinski in coproduction with Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall.

Maturity of a music ensemble is usually measured in years of its activity, however this ensemble has noted very intense concert activities with performances in Croatia, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom, Sweden (project Musical Links), France, Netherland, Swiss, China, Canada, Mexico and Turkey. Also the Ensemble has established an international interdisciplinary network of cooperation with the Austrian ensemble Zeitfluss, the Slovenian MD7, the Italian Icarus, the Belgian ensemble Musiques Nouvelles, the Arnold Schoenberg Centre and Foundation in Vienna, the ensemble Sonemus from Sarajevo, as well as with the Cromas Association for New Music from Trieste. These are all ensembles which share the same type of programme and advocate a quality production of contemporary music. The ambitious cooperation with the Icarus Ensemble and its guest performances in Zagreb, Cantus Ensemble's performances in Italy and joint projects in Mexico, Germany and Belgium showed a possible model of an international association!

In a unique project organized by the Croatian Radio named Cities of Music of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in November 2005, which hosted seven concerts that were broadcast live in twenty European countries, the Cantus Ensemble was bestowed great honour of opening the cycle. The programme consisted of works by five Croatian composers, four of which were dedicated to the ensemble (one was the first performance). Aside from the national programme, the ensemble also performed the third part of Paul Hindemith's anthological work (Chamber Music op. 36, No. 2) with the soloist Enrico Dindo, which was their pledge to the ensemble's basic programme orientation. From the very beginning, this orientation has included major chamber works of the 20th century Croatian and European heritage, as well as the promotion of contemporary Croatian opus and the works of foreign composers.

Among ensemble's performances abroad, their concerts in Sweden, in the autumn of 2006 (international project Musical Links), should certainly be highlighted, as well as the grand «journey around the world» that took them to Beijing (Beijing Modern Music Festival) and Toronto (Glenn Gould Studio), where they presented extraordinarily ten scores of Croatian composers of the 20th and 21st century. Also, the ensemble was appointed official ISCM's ensemble for the year 2008 and were presented at the ISCM's World Music Days in October 2008, hosted by the Gaida Festival in Vilnius. In the concert season 2009/2010 the ensemble had very successful guest performance during the festival BEMUS in Belgrade and for the first time performed in UK, at the festival Sounds New in Canterbury. In the season 2010/2011 they played in concert cycle of Dome des Invalides in Paris, in Tonhalle Düsseldorf, at the festival Ensemblia in Mönchengladbach and in Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. In the period of November 2008 - October 2010 Cantus Ensemble was part of the EU project Re:New Music ( with 12 international partners and 22 ensembles from 12 European countries.

Such an expansion of the Cantus Ensemble, with 16 chosen musicians as their core, was enabled by an extraordinarily large number of music works of the 20th and 21st centuries, while the ability to adapt to set, unconventional instrumental combinations gave them a new dimension - they constantly change their line-up, size, sound and stylistic characteristics. The idea of deserting the standard performing body of works and creating an opus of hitherto unusual instrumental formations stemmed from Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (the base of the instrumental ensemble are flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, violoncello, piano) in which the line-up changes with every song. Pierre Boulez shares the same idea, but on a different level, in his work The Hammer without a Master in which he gives performers new possibilities of creation. Through these works he democratically gives performers more space for greater freedom of expression, i. e. he enables their genuine participation in the moulding of a composition. It is not surprising that he wrote in the 1950s that "a composition must always hide surprise and pleasure despite its rationality that should be imposed in order to achieve certain steadiness. Is it possible to harmonize the work and the musician? The composition and the leader who must guide it? Certainly so - this has already been proved by works that announce a new manner of the music being..."

In order to respond to author's request, even one requiring the opening of fixed parts or a form of improvisation, the Cantus Ensemble had to create quality performing preconditions already at an early stage. This is also the reason why all of its members are not only excellent chamber musicians and soloists, but also concert-masters, principal players in symphony orchestras and professors at the Academy of Music in Zagreb. Such individualization of a music group to the level of soloists was required by the specific repertoire profile and a continuous open dialogue within contemporary artistic polystylistics in which music material is constructed and deconstructed in very different authorial concepts and where focus is sought precisely on the accentuated potion of every instrumental part.

There is no doubt that in the past five years the Cantus Ensemble became for the Croatian music scene what Klangforum is for the Austrian, Ensemble Modern for the German, Itinerair, 2M2M and Recherche Ensemble for the French, Avanti for the Finnish or Divertimento for the Italian scenes. French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez and his major project with the EntreContemporain Ensemble (IRCAM) is the "father" to all of these ensembles. Such specialization of a Croatian instrumental ensemble that draws exclusively on the interpretation of modern and contemporary music, that is its most sensitive part - the chamber music, has been guided from the very beginning by very simple principles - work, create, set rules, set time. This simple but binding formula was set in the clearest manner at the first Summer Workshop on the island of Vis via three distinct concert situations. What followed was the division into instrumental ensembles, the first was reserved for wind music, the second for strings which were occasionally complemented with other instruments, while the last and the most complex one required a first performance of a work by one Croatian and one foreign composer (who were personally present during the interpretative shaping phase) and a performance of a composition belonging to the Croatian heritage of the last century. This was an important moment in the creation of their own final identity and artistic self-confidence necessary for creative participation in shaping of each repertoire work. Today, they are distinguished artists on the Croatian cultural scene, and their unique programme status also give them a very high educational importance. Without them, many new generations of young musicians and young audience would be deprived of understanding the works from the past and this century, which only reaffirms another old-time Boulez's thought "...that the entire music life should be organized like a large museum with open galleries for contemporary music, but also with special sections dedicated to retrospection - a classical gallery in which people could always come to admire ancient master works, just as they can admire their Rembrandt in the Munich Picture Gallery whenever they want."

Cantus Ensemble won the Vatroslav Lisinski Price of the Croatian Composers' Society for its contribution to Croatian contemporary music (2005) and the Milka Trnina Price of the Croatian Society of Music Artists for its promotion of Croatian music (2005).