Not many concerts begin with a tenor gazing pensively at the inside of a piano, then singing into it. Zachary Colby’s strange behavior did have a purpose, however.

In the gaps between phrases of “Kulning,” the Scandinavian herding song that opened Cantus’ Tuesday morning recital at Westminster Presbyterian Church, you could hear the taut piano strings rustle and hum sympathetically as Colby’s breath vibrated over them. It was like a cool breeze wafting on a mountaintop. The sense of broad space opening around the listener was further amplified when Colby’s co-singers added softly swirling harmonies from the rear and sides of the wood-paneled auditorium.

The Scandinavian cow song proved an atmospheric tone-setter for “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” a program examining the potent influence of folk music in shaping our musical consciousness.

Seven of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” formed the backbone of this hourlong recital, performed without intermission. Some of Copland’s wonderful settings were sung in versions for the whole ensemble, per the usual Cantus fashion. Others, though, provided an opportunity for individual members to strut their solo paces.

Bass Chris Foss’ cheeky, mischievous account of “The Dodger,” pointedly sung and abetted by clever facial acting, set the bar high.

Foss’ fellow bass Samuel Green proceeded to comfortably clear it, in an animated romp through “I Bought Me a Cat,” complete with farmyard grunts and animal imitations.

Then there were quieter, more reflective moments. Baritone David Geist sang a movingly dignified “At the River,” while a six-voice version of “Long Time Ago” mined a soothing seam of gentle nostalgia.

Folk songs from outside the American tradition were also featured. “Kalinka” (“Snowberry”), from Russia, sported an ebullient solo from tenor Jacob Christopher, with a dizzy-making accelerando from the ensemble at its spinning climax.

A splendidly over-the-top rendition of the Cesare Andrea Bixio standard “Mamma” brought Cantus’ own version of the Three Tenors into the spotlight. Colby and Christopher did the initial jockeying for tenorial position. Both were arguably outdone, though, by the spectacular interventions of Adam Fieldson, ardently pinging out his top notes in classic “can belto” fashion.

Fieldson is one of two Cantus members leaving the group after this week’s concerts. The other is baritone Matthew Goinz, who also played most of the piano accompaniments. The pair’s final huzzah as Cantus members came via the ensemble’s brilliantly articulated account of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” which ended the recital. Buoyant, joyful, pleasingly precise and brimming with dynamic detail, it had all the qualities that make Cantus one of the most reliably insightful and entertaining groups on the Minnesota classical circuit.

In this cleverly programmed, stimulating recital, Cantus cleared space for shared tunes and memories — and for the musical past to cast a genial, civilizing influence on our fractured present.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at