The a cappella male vocal ensemble presented a rich assortment of music, from indigenous to immigrant.
It's a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that Cantus' "Before Us" captures a full expression of the American identity, but not much of one. In a scant 90 minutes of music, heard Friday night at St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis, the a cappella male vocal ensemble presented a survey of indigenous and immigrant songs.
The compelling program would mean little were it not so well performed.
Their full-throated rendition of Sibelius' "Finlandia Hymn" (representative of Minnesota's Scandinavian heritage) betrayed their classical training and sounded like it came from an ensemble much larger than its nine members.
"Lamentation Over Boston" by William Billings, the father of American sacred music, was likewise sung with classical purity, but with enough passion to make its reaction to a violent Revolutionary War battle deeply affecting.
One of the special moments was Lee Hoiby's "Last Letter Home," from a soldier killed in Iraq. His heart-rending music enriched without overpowering the deeply moving text. The result captured the overwhelming human cost of war.
Another highlight was "Envoyons d'l'Avant Nos Gens," a song of the French voyageurs, early visitors to Minnesota. This "paddling song" inspired some particularly character-full singing, capturing a sense of the rough-hewn woodsmen.
A Lakota song followed. "Lakota Wiyanki" was a culturally sensitive expression of the Native American tradition without losing the Cantus sound.
Adversely, the attempt at historical authenticity in "Pretty Saro," an Appalachian folk song, seemed condescending. This was a minor infraction in such a successful evening.
The program included much traditional sacred music such as "Sweet By and By," "Simple Gifts" and the African-American spiritual, "I Can't Tarry." In these, the ensemble found an enduring spirituality in the rich hymnody.
But as anyone who has attended Cantus' annual "Covers" concerts knows, the men are masters of pop music as well, which they demonstrated with a delicate and gentle take on Simon and Garfunkel's "America."
No survey of American music would be complete without show tunes. "They Call the Wind Maria," from Lerner and Loewe's "Paint Your Wagon," was over-arranged, marring the folk song-like simplicity of the original. But the finale, "Somewhere" from Bernstein's "West Side Story," sounded like music from the soul.
From the singers' impeccable diction to their simple theatricality, sometimes just their creative ways of positioning bodies around the stage, the concert experience proved highly engaging.
William Randall Beard writes about music.