Cantata Singers’ inaugural concert was recreated on Friday night at Jordan Hall to launch the organization’s 50th Anniversary Season. The evening comprised three contrasting Bach cantatas: BWV 131 (“Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir”), BWV 82 (“Ich habe genug”), and BWV 72 (“Alles nur nach Gottes Willien”). No site-specific resurrection was possible since the site of the debut, First Church of Boston’s fifth edifice, designed in 1867 by Ware and Van Brunt, was destroyed by fire in 1968 (a few pieces of the façade survive in the present structure.) That very sad loss was not a disaster for this kind of performance: the Boston Globe’s review of the original concert praised the performers while noting that the acoustics were “not the best” and that “about diction, it was hard to tell.”
One of the Cantata Singers’ strengths as an ensemble is its stylistic flexibility. The chorus sounds very different performing Brahms versus Beethoven and Beethoven versus Bach. For this evening, conductor and music director David Hoose drew a crisp, clear sound with just a hint of warmth from the chorus; much of the larger play of dynamics and shading came from the orchestra and soloists. In this interpretation, the orchestra—14 pieces for the first cantata, swelling to 18 for the third—stood on equal footing with the singers, highlighting the intertwining vocal and instrumental lines.
The musical offerings began with Cantata 131, a five-part piece based on the penitential Psalm 130. Although the opening movement’s cry “Out of the depths I call, Lord, to you” is often taken as an invitation for expressivo, this performance favored a more period-appropriate sound, with controlled vibrato and limited dynamic swells. Moderated restraint, not sterility or abandon, was the watchword of the evening.
The second movement introduced bass Dana Whiteside, who emerged from the chorus to deliver “So du willst, Herr”, an aria-duet with the soprano section. His rich and animated delivery stood out strongly amidst many musical distractions, including a lively and intertwined continuo line and a beautifully florid oboe part (the latter played ably by Peggy Pearson). One of the most transcendent moments of the evening was a brief passage at the end of Whiteside’s aria when his vocal line and the oboe descended together in parallel and perfectly tuned melismatic lines. Another came at the end of the third movement, when the fuguing voices of the choir and orchestra came one by one into alignment for an adagio finish in perfect homophony. It is in selected moments like this that hints of a more Romantic sound could be heard from the chorus – one of the welcome moderations found in the present-day historical performance movement.
Tenor Eric Christopher Perry, the featured soloist in the fourth movement, took a more subtle approach to his aria-duet with the alto section. His aria, on the text “My soul waits for the Lord”, explored many shades of piano. Although the chorus and continuo at times seemed poised to overwhelm Perry’s lighter tone, they never did so; with Jordan Hall’s acoustics, his delivery remained clear and audible throughout. This served to heighten the contrast between his text and that of the altos, who undertook the role of the agonized and troubled sinner.
The second cantata, BWV 82 is for baritone soloist and an exquisite oboe da caccia part. In 1964, when the original program was presented, the historical performance movement had yet to resurrect this latter instrument and a variety of unsatisfactory substitutions were being tried. A happy medium was found for Friday’s concert by employing an English horn, beautifully played by Peggy Pearson; baritone James Maddalena tackled the demanding vocal part.
Maddalena sang expressively and without the aid of a score. Like Perry, much of his singing explored a palette of grey and piano, in keeping with a text that dwells on exhaustion and world-weariness. For the closing recitative and aria, though, his delivery was injected with power and energy. This contrast was perfectly in keeping with an impatient shift in the lyrics, but hints of that richness and volume would have been welcome in the earlier movements as well.
The evening continued with warm recognition for the founding director of the Cantata Singers, Leo Collins, who was also the director of music at First Church Boston when CS debuted there. Hoose then immediately dived into the spirited and florid BWV 72; his tempo seized the energy in the room and channeled it into the upbeat chorus that opens the cantata. The chorus responded with a bright sound befitting the optimistic mood of the text.
The next sections featured alto Lynn Torgove with recitative, an arioso passage, and a full aria. Torgove’s voice amply filled the hall, yet brimmed with the promise of additional power. Of all the soloists, she made the fullest use of the room’s acoustic potential, with a lush and expressive range of delivery that was well complemented by the dueling solo violin parts (played by Danielle Maddon and Dianne Pettipaw) that accompanied her aria.
The second half of the cantata included a recitative delivered by baritone James Dargan and an aria sung by soprano Lisa Lynch. Although his musical spotlight was brief, Dargan’s oratory was clear, distinguished, and powerful. Lynch’s lighter voice was sometimes overshadowed by the oboe during her aria, but not covered up. (Lynch also had to contend with the full string orchestra, which was expanded for this final cantata.) A powerful chorale offered with deep choral conviction, “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” (“What my God wills always occurs”) brought the evening to a close.