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WQXR Features

Café Concert: Calmus Ensemble

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Say Leipzig and classical music listeners may think of old, blue-chip institutions like the St. Thomas Boys Choir, the Gewandhaus Orchestra or the Bach-Archiv, which carries on the legacy of the German city’s most famous composer.

Most may not think of a young a capella quintet that covers Irish airs and folk songs, jazz tunes and pop hits by Michael Jackson, Sting and Freddie Mercury. But the Leipzig-based Calmus Ensemble has developed such versatility, with a repertoire that also reaches back to composers from Purcell and Bach to Mendelssohn and Debussy.

“The pop songs today have the same role as the madrigals centuries ago,” Ludwig Böhme, the ensemble's baritone told host Jeff Spurgeon (listen to the full interview and performance above).

Formed in 1999 by six male graduates of the Thomas Church Choir School, the group's personnel shifted early on and the gleaming soprano voice of Anja Lipfert was added in 2001 (the lineup today also includes countertenor Sebastian Krause, tenor Tobias Pöche and bass Joe Roesler). Calmus's members cite the King's Singers as a formative influence, and some critics have drawn (perhaps more unusual) comparisons to mixed-voice a cappella groups like the Swingle Singers.

Calmus stopped by the WQXR Café a day after their debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to perform a holiday-focused program. They began with "Nova Nova," an ancient song given a modern twist in an arrangement by choral singer and composer Bob Chilcott.

The Calmus musicians carry a distinctly German identity and they don't avoid the music of their hometown composers. But baritone Böhme insists that versatility is the group's ultimate calling card. "Our classical background is clear," he said. "When we sing pop arrangements we don't sound like pop singers. Everybody will hear our classical education. We always love the variety. There are many possibilities of where we can sing."

The Calmus musicians showed their cheekier side with a performance of "Jingle Bells." In Böhme's arrangement, it is combined with "Suesser die Glocken nie klingen" ("Sweeter the Bells Never Sound"),a German carol from the 1850s.

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Production & Text: Brian Wise