During almost 20 years of their existence, soloists, conductors, concert halls, festivals, continents, composers, scores and concepts changed but not their spiritual platform – the recent 20th and the current 21st-century music. The milieu from which the Music Biennale Zagreb (MBZ) – as the Ensemble’s program and conceptual nucleus – stemmed, had, interestingly, never seriously considered founding an institutionalized ensemble that would support and continue its unconventional, and sometimes even avant-garde pulse between the festivals. It is possible that in the musical abundance of the 1980s it was enough to hear the contemporary sound on stage once every two years, while during the war and post-war years there was no incentive for this initiative. But there was in 2001 – Biennale was just around the corner with a ready repertoire, and Zagreb was full of experienced (and young) musicians. For that particular occasion, the temporary resident ensemble was established, but it was so wonderfully good that the MBZ’s spark lit the fire and the fate has bestowed on it permanence and stability. It stopped being merely “temporary”, and a short while later it took the name Cantus (a Latin word for singing). Its mission was set. They “… insisted on an approach in which the presentation of the occasional avant-garde music is not a goal in itself, but merely the foundation on which interpretation is built.” (Trpimir Matasović, 2009).
Ensemble was founded not out of protest, defiance or on a whim, but out of pure need. It has earned its place. It was the first of its kind in Croatia then and now, and is often described as “an ensemble that specializes in contemporary music performances.” From their first performance at the MBZ in 2001 with a cycle of four concerts and ten premieres it has mapped out for itself and its (young) audience the course of action that was firmly established in the 2006/2007 season and their own six concert cycle (Cantus&Lisinski). Through all these years it has maintained consistency and has continued to perform in almost the same line-up, focused on two five-member instrumental groups – strings and wind instruments. The performing group is larger or smaller depending on the literature that breaks from the canonical formations and that requires from musicians interpretative diversity of the concert and often also theatrical content. The cycle that has made them an established name on the Croatian cultural scene became a true school of history and contemporariness of New Music.
In 2008, Cantus became the official ensemble of the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) World Music Days in Vilnius after which their guest performances intensified, including performances at the Sounds New festival in Canterbury, a concert cycle at the Parisian Les Invalides, Tonhalle Cycle in Düsseldorf, Ensemblia Festival in the German Mönchengladbach, BEMUS in Belgrade, Musikprotokoll Festival in Graz, May Music Festival of the National Center of Performing Arts in Beijing (NCPA), Basel Culturescapes Festival in Switzerland, Unicum Festival in Ljubljana, Mediterranean Contemporary Music Days Festival in Istanbul, Gaudeamus Music Week Festival in Amsterdam and Cervantino Festival in Mexico etc. The Ensemble also performed at the Paul Klee Center in Bern, Tonhalle in Düsseldorf and at the Canadian concert halls in Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal (2014).
Regardless of the performing venue, it has fulfilled its original goal – to preserve and promote works by contemporary Croatian composers. In 2014 alone, it presented 74 compositions, 55 of which belong to the national literature plus 5 first performances. It was the first Croatian ensemble to take part in the international project Re: New Music (supported by the EU) with 12 other international partners and 22 ensembles from 11 European countries. Together, they created a platform with approximately 170 performances a year whose goal was to present contemporary production to a wider audience.
Beneficial for the new audience of the new age
The Ensemble's advantage is that its members are all excellent and renowned instrumentalists, and since their program makes no hierarchical distinction between solo and tutti, the soloist component has led to individualization of the music collective as required by the authorial concepts and specific repertoire profile of contemporary artistic polystylistics. One of the concerts in their cycle carries just such title, precisely because it emphasizes individual excellence that also includes a spot at the conductor’s stand. They do tend to experiment and improvise, which is an attribute of the contemporary composer's script. Cantus plays, sings and entertains through “the most diverse aspects of music,” and occasionally, as at the Cantus Bacchanale concert, “they go beyond musical and give their audience… and themselves a program that flirts, plays with and paraphrases dance, theatre, past, future, cabaret, jazz…,” similar to what they did in 2015 with the performance of the Soap Opera episodes in sequences just before the integral premiere of the musiconovelas at the 28th Music Biennale Zagreb. The legendary Silvio Foretić, one of the five Croatian composers whose Soap opera was performed at the time in coproduction with the Student Center's Culture of Change, commented: “Better an abundant and fun heterogeneity than restrained, cautions and dull monolithics.“
Heterogeneity is a constant repertoire feature of the Ensemble, from the concert commemorating the centenary of the First World War (held in 2014), Kaiser Cantus concert, Cantus Plays Jazz concert or the concert honoring women composers, Women 4 Cantus 4 Women, to numerous festival appearances and guest performances abroad. There is no doubt that this is an elite group that presupposes high criteria in maintaining the continuity of concert activities at a higher professional level. In recent years, the Ensemble's educational effect was also favorable for the formation of “the new audience for the new age.” When faced with hermetic opuses of a narrower field of communication, of the often dehumanized functionality, whose rigor every less trained listener's ear dreads (which is not unknown in the perception of New Music), the Ensemble demonstrates skillful balance necessary to keep its concert show within the framework of positive musical tension.
From the very beginning, the Ensemble received a lot of support in all its efforts from guests, soloists and conductors, as well as directors, choreographers and costume designers, whose artistic contribution has improved the interpretative force, creativity and innovative quality of hundreds of works it has interpreted. Along with Ivan Josip Skender, the Ensemble’s permanent conductor from 2012, they have shared their success with prominent Croatian and international artists of different generations.
Performance statistics of the Cantus Ensemble is not final. In the fifteen years since its founding, they have studied and presented around six hundred works, premiered more than one hundred pieces, mostly from the national corpus. There is almost no Croatian composer who did not compose for the Ensemble, and some more than once, including Mladen Tarbuk, Frano Parać, Anđelko Klobučar, Milan Horvat, Bogdan Gagić, Srećko Bradić, Krešimir Seletković, Frano Đurović, Sanja Drakulić, Ivo Josipović, Marko Ruždjak, Srđan Dedić, Silvio Foretić, Ivana Kiš, Berislav Šipuš, Dubravko Detoni, Mirela Ivičević, Sanja Stojanović, Sanda Majurec, Branko Lazarin, Olja Jelaska, Ante Knešaurek, Dubravko Palanović, Ivan Josip Skender, Zlatko Tanodi, Vjekoslav Nježić etc. The Ensemble reciprocated with excellent performances, always protecting the diversity of composing autonomies and their differing manuscripts. Whatever piece they turned to, whether it originated in 1915 or 2015, they made it refreshingly current in the moment in which it was performed, as if Horatio the poet whispered to them: “Occasionally add a bit of madness to your intentions,” which, looking at their achievements, the Croatian audience welcomes and which is, after all, also “recognized by the listeners from distant continents.”