On a very crowded train last Sunday afternoon, young people flamboyantly dressed in the green third of the Mardi Gras color spectrum inched their way cheerfully toward Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities which were in full swing. But on the same Sunday afternoon, just before Holy Week, the Cantata Singers, under the direction of David Hoose, turned Jordan Hall into a Lenten refuge of reflective and deep pathos, presenting contemporary choral works by James MacMillan and Marjorie Merryman, followed by a beautifully orchestrated, soulful set of Schumann’s Four Songs for Double Chorus op. 141. A seasoned ensemble capable of tremendous power, the Cantata Singers nevertheless conveyed every musical nuance down to a whisper. The outstanding intonation of its women’s section, perfectly balanced with its lower registers, gave an incandescent quality to this repertory that was deeply moving. Celebrating his 30th season as conductor, Hoose’s combined his orchestral and choral facility with his keen comprehension of text to bring forth a profoundly beautiful performance.
James MacMillan’s breathtaking Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993), constituted the entire first half of the concert. Set to a compilation from the four Gospels to form a sequential presentation of the utterances, its profoundly expressive choral and orchestral canvas was astronomical. Although the program notes were taken from MacMillan’s own descriptions, they provided only structural guidance, while understating the deep emotional impact of these texts and their invocation of rich ambience and imagery. The first movement, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke), from the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae, began mysteriously with material cited as a cadential figure from MacMillan’s 1991 clarinet quintet Tuireadh (lament), slowly repeated, and grew. With sensitivity to mysticism, the ethereal sound of women’s chorus combined with chord suspensions in the strings, filling the air with distant anguish, as if the heavens were weeping, while the words, “Hosanna filio David…” were repeated, ending in monotonal chanting of the Palm Sunday exclamation, “The life that I held dear I delivered into the hands of the unrighteous…” set in aural effect, as if one were witnessing the universe speaking in tongues.
“Woman, Behold Thy Son!… Behold Thy Mother!” began with a consonant wall of sound in the tradition of Bach’s Passion chorales, but with the fuller voicing of Rachmaninoff. Steeped in added dissonance with each utterance, capturing each time more fully the intense grief of seeing a loved one suffer against increasingly frantic, Bartok-like strings, it settled finally into what implied exhaustion, like that of a dying man. “Verily, I say unto thee, today though shalt be with me in Paradise,” was poignantly Romantic writing featuring minor arpeggios and 4-3 suspensions in the strings, stunningly written under soloists, capturing different flavors of sonority through grouping of duets, including use of quarter-tones in a male pairing and unearthly whistle voice in the sopranos.
One could imagine “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani” (Matthew and Luke) in the hands of a different composer being written dramatically with great corporal indignation and earthly anguish. But surprisingly and insightfully, the intense emotion the movement invoked was not of pleading, but of foreboding resignation emerging from a ghostly sense of abandonment. In concordance with this employment of mystical atmosphere, MacMillan explains that in “I Thirst,” “The two words I thirst are set to a static and slow-moving harmonic procedure which is deliberately bare and desolate.” This compositional element of ambient desertification was discernible and effective, but in it were also moments of wetted hope, like a dream of unattainable oasis turning sour under the text, “I gave you to drink of life-giving water from the rock: and you gave me to drink of gall and vinegar.” These harmonic contrasts were visceral.
MacMillan saves his expression of earthly suffering for the final text, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit” (Luke), which he describes thus: “The first word is exclaimed in anguish three times before the music descends in resignation. The choir has finished—the work is subsequently completed by strings alone.” Its completion “by strings alone,” however, was not the reverent cadence of a chorale, but the lonely wheezing of a humanlike dying organism, struggling faintly through its last breaths, long silence between each, as the audience waits in dread—the final breath of Christ.
It was gratifying to hear this remarkable composition from such a capable ensemble.
The second half opened with the Boston premiere of Margorie Merryman’s very fine setting of three poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins, which she entitled Beauty, Grief and Grandeur. Merryman related:
I have been drawn to the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins for the arresting images, tensions and messages of the texts, and for the technical inventiveness of the poetic forms and language. The overtly religious and devotional nature of the poetry, focusing on faith and obedience, balances uneasily with images of great sensual power and direct, lived experience. This duality in viewpoint gives the poetry a searching richness that carries Hopkins’ work far beyond his own immediate sphere as an obscure 19th century Jesuit.
In a postmodern world, the sacred and the earthly may not seem at odds, but Merryman’s setting seemingly reflected her interest in these poems for their imagery, tension, and alliteration. In Pied Beauty, Merryman’s treatment of Hopkins’s glorification of “dappled things” shimmered with word painting. Spring and Fall, sung by soprano Karyl Ryczek, portrayed loss through harmonization and vocal effect, like a windy loneliness blowing through an emptying world, in which we are confronted by our own mortality and, more sensually and specifically, by fading beauty. The final movement, God’s Grandeur, flashed with percussion and irregular rhythms, but with increasing harmonic angst capturing the struggle of a machinist world crushing nature beneath, as nature waits below and the Holy Ghost above, in faith of renewal.
Schumann’s Four Songs for Double Chorus, an old friend to this ensemble in its original a capella version, was the beautifully performed closer in an orchestral arrangement by David Hoose. After such challenging preceding material, the Cantata Singers could easily have let down their guard with the Schumann and not given it full attention. But on the contrary, it glistened as a jewel, with Schumann’s lush harmonic voicing shining as exemplary choral writing. To paraphrase David Hoose, these songs glow with autumnal light like the season in which they were written, during one of the most fertile years of Schumann’s career. Regarding the orchestrated version, Hoose states:
Cantata Singers has performed the pieces in their original unaccompanied form, and it is that sound that first drew me to them. But the music’s gestures and opulence (they were written “for large chorus”) have also made me imagine the chorus bursting at its seams, perhaps yearning for instrumental companionship.… I hope Schumann wouldn’t mind.
It was hard to imagine that he would.
Janine Wanée holds a bachelor of music from the University of Southern California, a master of music from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She is a member of the Copley Singers under Brian Jones.