Friday was the final evening at the Source Song Festival, the fourth since pianist Mark Bilyeu and mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski hatched a plan to give classical art song an annual week of show-and-tell in Minneapolis.
Mixing public recitals with workshops and master classes, Source quickly has established itself as a major fixture in the Twin Cities classical calendar, purveying international standards of excellence.
In a week that started with a concert of world premieres by four Minnesota-based composers, and included a revelatory recital of Canadian art song, Friday's finale featured one work only — Schubert's song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin.
Moving from wide-eyed hope to harrowing disillusion, Schubert's cycle tells a young man's story of love and loss in twenty songs, lasting a total of 70 minutes.
On Friday evening at the MacPhail Center, it was told by a young man — Evan LeRoy Johnson, a highly promising tenor from Pine Island, Minn., currently completing his graduate studies at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia.
Partnering Johnson, the voice of youth, was eminent English pianist Julius Drake, the sage arbiter of experience.
Drake is a wonderful accompanist, and gave a piano master class of his own as Schubert's songs unraveled.
From the truculent staccato outbursts of "Der Jäger" ("The Huntsman") to the airy ripplings of "Wohin?" ("Where to?"), Drake's hypersensitive scaling of the work's shifting emotions added immeasurable nuance to the raw tale of rejection traced in the tenor's music.
As the itinerant mill worker infatuated with the mill owner's daughter, Johnson was often fiery and impetuous. "Ungeduld" ("Impatience") unleashed a volley of resounding outbursts, the last borderline-desperate in its attempt to make-believe the singer's affections are reciprocated.
There were moments of tenderness and reflection, too. "Der Neugierige" ("The Inquisitive One") brought sudden jolts of anxious introspection, with finely supported legato singing. "Morgengruß" ("Morning Greeting") was sweetly lyrical, yet Johnson also touchingly suggested the poignant fragility of love desired, but not yet fully captured.
Some of the songs were not quite as fully characterized by Johnson as others, and as his career develops he will no doubt fill out and further animate his interpretation.
But by the time Johnson and Drake entered the final stages of the spurned lover's journey, they were unquestionably working at an elevated level of artistry.
The last three songs are miraculously beautiful creations, a soft benediction on a life the miller lad no longer thought worth living.
Johnson, still honey-toned and full of vocal stamina, delivered a moving, dignified traversal of these final moments, abetted by Drake's mesmerically poised accompaniments.
It was a gripping finale to this year's Source festival, at the end of which artistic director Mark Bilyeu announced that Roger Vignoles, doyen of piano accompanists, had already been booked to come to Minneapolis next summer.
Together Bilyeu and associate director Clara Osowski have created something in a Twin Cities niche where nothing previously existed. For lovers of classical art song, it is something wonderful.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.