Most classical song recitals put just a single singer on the stage. Over the course of a two-hour evening, one might occasionally wish for a little more variety.
That wish was lavishly granted Monday evening at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, as the Source Song Festival kick-started its sixth season. No fewer than 10 singers were featured, with three pianists sharing the accompaniments. In all, 26 songs by 26 composers were sung, all of them living in Minnesota when their songs were written.
For lovers of the classical art song, it was like Christmas coming early.
Billed as “Six Decades of Minnesota Song,” the recital worked chronologically from 1960 to the present, with a set of four or five songs for each decade.
It opened charmingly with the homespun “Minnesota, Tapestry of Living Lace” by Hanna Rolfsrud Weltzin, a music teacher who was apparently also an excellent seamstress. The piece’s relaxed parlor idiom and florid sentiments could come across as hokum nowadays, but were played straight and sensitive by mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski and pianist Mark Bilyeu.
Co-founders of the Source Festival, Osowski and Bilyeu popped up frequently as performers throughout the evening. Their witty take on three Paul Fetler settings of animal poems by Hilaire Belloc was delectable, with droll illustrations from Belloc’s “The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts” projected on a screen over the platform.
The 1960s also yielded a wonderful setting by Celius Dougherty of Walt Whitman’s “Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day,” a poem mourning Lincoln’s assassination. Baritone Alan Dunbar built the drama tautly, retaining poise and tonal plenitude even as Dougherty’s music eventually burst the levee banks of raw emotion.
Dunbar teamed up with the excellent soprano Tracey Engleman for “The Loons,” Carolyn Jennings’ paean to Minnesota’s state bird. The song was unaccompanied, and the wordless vocalise spun round Michael Estok’s poem sounded like loon calls on a placid lake at evening.
Styles other than classical were also represented. Soprano Bergen Baker intoned a defiant arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the poetic imagery seeming ever more startling and prophetic.
Norah Long contributed a coy take on the early Prince song “Baby,” and showed her music theater chops in the macabre “Torch Song” from Chan Poling’s “Glensheen.”
Disquiet of a different sort was registered in Steve Heitzeg’s poignant “Refugee (Variations on immigration),” another piece where wordless vocalise was used. Soprano Rachel Storlie sang it, having earlier nailed a virtuoso performance of Phillip Rhodes’ squawking, expressionist “The Crow.”
Emily Riley, KrisAnne Weiss, Jacob Christopher and Pablo Siqueiros were the other soloists on an evening where standards of interpretation were high. Timothy Lovelace and Ruth Palmer shared the piano with Bilyeu.
The recital ended with “Outside Work,” a recently completed piece by Minneapolis-based composer J. David Moore. Its sense of floating reverie was a perfect envoi to an evening that showed art song is alive and well in Minnesota, indeed thriving.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.