Experimentation was in the air Wednesday evening at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
In a new venue, at a time of year when regular season concerts are usually over, Twin Cities male vocal ensemble Cantus launched a new initiative — its first "summer chamber music concert" — to a packed audience.
At the heart of the program was a performance of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Songs of Travel," a cycle of nine songs originally written for solo baritone.
There are a couple of baritones in the Cantus lineup, but each member of the eight-member ensemble was allotted a song, regardless of vocal range. Adam Fieldson's emotional account of "Whither Must I Wander" particularly tugged the heartstrings. Poised yet vulnerable, Fieldson distilled an aching sense of loss and isolation from Robert Louis Stevenson's lines, recollecting "kind folks of old" who "come again no more."
The novel idea of using eight different singers to perform Vaughan Williams' cycle proved more than novelty.
The range of voices heard — from Zachary Colby's plangent high tenor in "Youth and Love" to bass Samuel Green's reassuringly doughty "Bright is the Ring of Words" — added individuality to the experiences described in Stevenson's poems, and by Vaughan Williams' music.
It also freshened the audience's attention from number to number. Each song had a different tale to tell, and the process of listening was fascinatingly enhanced by having a different singer tell it.
Among a clutch of excellent individual performances, tenor Jacob Christopher's rapt, heart-aching account of "The Infinite Shining Heavens" stood out for its tonal sweetness and purity of diction.
Baritone Matthew Goinz spent most of the cycle accompanying his fellow singers in exemplary fashion on piano, before accompanying himself in the moving epilogue. Is there no end to the man's talent?
Bookending the Vaughan Williams songs, in a recital lasting an hour without intermission, were two groups of pieces reflecting further on the theme of travel.
Music by Alfvén, Srebotnjak, Rangström and Rachmaninoff were included, in configurations ranging from all eight singers to a single soloist.
The lyrics conjured hills, mountains and earth's empty places, providing solace for the weary.
Beethoven's jocular "Farewell Song," though, brought a welcome shot of levity. Singers Chris Foss, Colby, and Goinz relished the opportunity to ham it up, delighting the audience with their tongue-in-cheek dance moves.
Further joshing enlivened the droll travelogue of "Kansas Highway Sky," while the encore — a Korean folk melody — was pitch-perfect in its gentle sense of leave-taking.
As a venture into a new format, the evening was totally successful for Cantus. More summer chamber music programs are eagerly awaited.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.