The Cantata Singers led by David Hoose concluded their Britten season last Friday, May 8th at 7:30 in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. On the program were two works by Britten, the premiere of Andy Vores’s Natural Selection, a single choral movement by Bach, and a collaborative “cantata” by fourth-graders from the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester.
Probably best known as the composer of Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote a number of important works for chorus as well as for solo voice. Friday’s program opened with Britten’s The Company of Heaven, commissioned for broadcast in September 1937 by the BBC radio. Celebrating the feast day of St. Michael and all Angels, the text is a compilation of poetry and prose that includes biblical texts and selections from Theodosius, Milton, Hopkins, Emily Brontë, and the Rosettis, among others. Out of these disparate elements Britten created a work in three sections — Before the Creation, Angels in Scripture, and Angels in Common Life and at Our Death — employing two speakers, soprano and tenor soloists, chorus, and an orchestra of strings, organ, and timpani. Speakers Marya Lowry and James Petosa delivered narrative and poetic texts with equal clarity and conviction, while rhythmicize choral recitation to orchestral accompaniment of the final battle between Michael and Satan from the Book of Revelation demonstrated Britten’s mastery of this dramatic technique. Other highlights of the performance included Karyl Ryczek’s beautifully sung soprano solo with chorus, “Heaven is here,” and tenor William Hite’s sensitive rendering of Emily Brontë’s “A thousand thousand gleaming fires,” the first of many works Britten composed for his lifelong partner and collaborator, tenor Peter Pears. The triumphant finale, “Ye watchers and ye holy ones,” brings to light the familiar hymn tune, already hinted at in the opening “Chaos” section and in the orchestral postlude to the “War in Heaven” chorus.
Britten was particularly interested in music for children, and in two of his operas — Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep — both featured in a Cantata Singers program earlier this season, young performers combine with professionals. Cantata Singers’ innovative “Classroom Cantatas” program brings artists from the group to work with children, who collectively choose their texts, set them to music, and perform them with the ensemble, connecting composition and performance to skills developed in their core school curriculum. This year, the ensemble worked with fourth-graders at the Neighborhood House Charter School to compose a “cantata” on Christina Rosetti’s “Wren and Robins” and “The Caterpillar.” At Friday’s concert, the students were joined by the Boston Children’s Chorus in a performance of their songs with the Cantata Singers orchestra. Andy Vores has called his newly commissioned cantata Natural Selection a “celebration of the natural world and of Charles Darwin.” Vores skillfully incorporated the children’s tunes into his own choral settings of “The Caterpillar” and “Wrens and Robins,” prefacing them with an evocative setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Glory Be to God for Dappled Things.” The strangeness Hopkins praised was echoed in Vores’s music by the contrast between ethereal string chords and grotesque glissandos for muted trumpets Like Britten, Vores has a gift for effective text setting. His cantata includes a lengthy prose selection from Darwin’s The Origin of Species for chorus against a background of organ ostinato and pizzicato strings, and concludes on a lighter note with a Hopkins poem featuring the cuckoo, “Repeat That, Repeat.”
Britten’s Psalm 150 was composed for two-part children’s choir and “whatever instruments happen to be on hand.” Anthony Trecek-King, director of the Boston Children’s Chorus, took over the podium while Cantata Singers conductor David Hoose joined the percussion section on the triangle. After an opening orchestral march, the children’s singing illustrates the various instruments cited in the psalm, from jazzy trumpets to gentle lute and harp, culminating in joyful shouts for the cymbals. Here Britten showed he could write high-quality music that is accessible to and performable by children. Everyone, from the Children’s Chorus (in red blazers) and the NHCS singers (in white shirts) to their numerous friends and family in the audience, had a wonderful time.
Bach’s magnificent choral fugue Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, scored for oboes, trumpets, and timpani in addition to strings and continuo, concluded the festive program. Based on another text from the Book of Revelation depicting the battle between St. Michael and Satan, it may have originally belonged to a multi-movement cantata whose remainder has been lost. Under Hoose’s direction, the Cantata Singers delivered a spirited performance, although the complex fugal texture might have been better served by a smaller choral ensemble.