Back in the spring of 2020, when COVID blew into town and swept away all of our live-music experiences, Cantus was something of a first responder. The Minneapolis-based, eight-man a cappella vocal group quickly quarantined and created "The COVID-19 Sessions," a collection of vocal videos that offered inspiration and solace, just as fear and hopelessness were gaining a foothold in hearts.
Some of the songs went justifiably viral on social media, when that adjective was considered a good thing.
On Friday evening, the voices of Cantus at last rang out again for a masked-up audience at the group's first indoor Twin Cities concert in 22 months. Friday's reunion with their local admirers took place within the tall, resonant stone sanctuary of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral beside Minneapolis' Loring Park.
And it was lovely to hear them again. Even with two new baritones in the fold, the group remains remarkably consistent in its chemistry and expert harmonic interplay. And it's all the more admirable that this outstanding octet has chosen to not just comfort its audiences, but challenge them.
The topic of Cantus' fall program, "My Journey Yours," is the immigration experience. It includes 14 pieces that address leaving one country for another, bridging them with readings penned by everyone from renowned poets to Minneapolis schoolchildren. There is burdensome sorrow and a sense of cathartic release, the eight men employing 11 languages to chronicle the emotional terrain traversed in throwing one life off and beginning another.
The starting point was one of those songs Cantus recorded early in the pandemic, Jean Sibelius' hymn "Finlandia." It set a high bar for emotionally engaging singing, but it was soon surpassed by what could be called the concert's title track — Elise Witt's "My Journey Yours," an international collage of languages and musical styles that proved gripping.
But the most memorable performances came on a triptych of pieces premiered Friday night. Cantus commissioned Australian American composer Melissa Dunphy to write a work on the subject of immigration and she created "N-400 Erasure Songs." The form N-400 is a U.S. application for naturalization. Dunphy asked two poets to black out text on the form, the remaining words forming poetry that the composer set to music.
Each of the three movements proved powerful, the first haunting and mournful, while the second pulsed with the anxious spirit of one sinking in the quicksand of bureaucracy. But reassurance arrived in the program's finale, a beautifully moving embrace upon arrival for which Dunphy created both music and text.
It proved a comforting coda after the concert's emotional climax, an electrifying arrangement of Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler's "Movimiento," which featured the evening's standout solo vocal, from tenor Alberto de la Paz. It sounded one more note of encouragement in a program that addresses difficulty but consistently presents hope as an option.
My Journey Yours
Sunday: 3 p.m., Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka.
Thursday: 11 a.m., Colonial Church of Edina.
Friday: 7:30 p.m., Ordway Concert Hall, St. Paul, and also livestreamed.
Oct. 24: 3 p.m., Trinity Lutheran Church, Stillwater.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com