Jan Dismas Zelenka is one of my favorite composers. Now there is something you don’t hear every day. I feel the same way about Frank Martin (1890-1974), also hardly a household name. It was therefore a delight to discover music by both of these composers performed by David Hoose and the Cantata Singers last night at Jordan Hall: three works from Zelenka’s twenty-seven motet series Responsoria pro Hebdomada Sancta (ZWV 55), and Martin’s last composition, his Et la vie l’emporta. Two cantatas by J. S. Bach, Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost (BWV 114) and Ach Gott, wie manches herzeleid (BWV 3), served as bookends to the program. The concert was expertly performed by a crack orchestra, the 40+ singers of the chorus (no one-on-a-part Bach here, thank goodness) and a host of fine soloists (in order of appearance): Karyl Ryczek, Krista River, William Hite, James Dargan, Lynn Torgove, Mark Andrew Cleveland, Lisa Lynch, Andrea Wivchar, Jason Sabol and James Liu. The only disappointment was the shockingly small audience. Jordan Hall was less than half full.
Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in Prague in 1679, and died in 1745 in Dresden, where he spent most of his professional life. My first encounter with Zelenka’s music was in the 1960s, when two brilliant, virtuoso, pot-smoking oboe players from Julliard (hey, it was the sixties—but I didn’t inhale, of course) came up to visit me at Yale so that we could read through “some very unusual” chamber music for their instruments. “Unusual” indeed. I had, in fact, never heard or played anything quite like it. The writing for the oboes (and bassoon) in these trio sonatas by Zelenka was on a technical level that far surpassed any other music from the Baroque era, or many pieces from the 20th-century for that matter, and Zelenka’s approach to harmony, counterpoint and formal structure was also all his own. One movement even began with a diminished seventh chord, rather than the customary tonic chord. Here was a Baroque composer with a unique voice, and I made it a point to learn as much as possible about Zelenka and the other music he had written. I urge readers of The Boston Musical Intelligencer to do the same.
The compositional voice of the Swiss-born Frank Martin is also one of distinctive individuality and originality, and it developed somewhat late in Martin’s life, as the composer himself admitted: “it was only towards the age of forty-five that I discovered my true language. Before, certainly, I had written some works with definite character….But I had not developed a technique which was my own. For me the solution was to be in a position to become the master of total chromaticism…And I can say that my most personal output begins around the age of fifty. If I had died then, I could never have expressed myself in my true language.”
We are fortunate that Martin continued composing for the next thirty years. The work performed by the Cantata Singers at this concert, Et la vie l’emporta, is a prime example of Martin’s highly personal musical language, although it sadly turned out to be his last, as the composer died 10 days after completing it. It is, however, vintage Martin, with a brilliant amalgam of old and new styles, including Gregorian chant, chorales à la Bach, and a “continuo group” of organ, harpsichord and harp, intermixed with some lush lyricism and a dissonant, almost 12-tone harmonic language.
Congratulations to the Cantata Singers for a fascinating, well-conceived and finely executed program.