Here's a riddle for you: What has nine tongues and speaks more than 30 languages?
Before you start searching the Web for some sci-fi movie character or Hindu god that might fit that description, let me make it easy for you: The correct answer is Cantus, the nine-member choral ensemble coming to Bass Hall on Monday.
"In the history of the group, we are beyond 30 languages," said Aaron Humble, one of the five tenors in the Minneapolis-based group, describing the wide range of material Cantus performs. "In addition to German, French, Spanish, Italian and English, we've done Latvian, Estonian and other languages that are a little bit further afield."
The program planned for Monday is built around the theme "On the Shoulders of Giants" (also the title of a 2012 CD by Cantus), said Humble, who recently appeared with his group on Garrison Keillor's popular NPR radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, performing numbers that ranged from cowboy songs to a work believed to be the first piece of choral music ever preserved with written notes.
"It is sort of a masterworks program. It consists of pieces inspired by masterworks, and pieces that are themselves trying to hit that mark," said Humble, describing the concert that will feature works by Franz Schubert, American choral composing legend Randall Thompson and contemporary composers. "We address the audience and try to make classical music accessible to people who go to the symphony and also people who have never gone to a classical concert before in their lives."
Humble describes Cantus as "a collaborative ensemble with no director." So arriving at exactly which works to perform can be a bit involved.
"We do a lot in terms of consensus building," said Humble, who has been a member of Cantus for eight of its 13 years. "We have programming meetings where the whole company comes together. We usually arrive at a consensus on a theme, and from there people start bringing in music."
Once a piece is selected, one of the members of the group, which is composed of pairs of basses and baritones to go along with the five tenors, is designated as the producer of that particular work, overseeing its development and concert presentation.
But getting to that point can be tricky.
"That's when you are glad that there are nine people in the group," said Humble, explaining that the odd number prevents tie votes.
Cantus is impressively busy for an ensemble of its type. Humble said that, in a typical year, the group performs about 30 concerts in the Minneapolis area, and about 50 on the road.
In addition, the singers conduct master classes for aspiring choristers in conjunction with their performances.
"We really love doing master class work instead of just blowing into town, doing a concert and then leaving. It gives us the chance to meet up with some choral singers there and also probably drive a few more folks to come to the concert as well," said Humble, adding that the group will be conducting such a class on Monday morning at Bass Hall.
Staying in such direct contact with the group's fan base has given Humble an education in the state of American choral music that is astonishing in its detail.
"Texas kids are very well known for being good sight readers," said Humble, while praising the level of music education in our state.
So, if you attend Monday's concert and are not sure that the singers are exactly where they ought to be, just look for a kid sight-reading the sheet music and ask for an opinion. And maybe that student will be able to translate the lyrics for you.