The Cantata Singers closed its 50th-anniversary season Friday night with Bach, Zelenka, and a much-anticipated world premiere by John Harbison. The performances were polished and powerful, with many captivating moments that more than made up for a few artistic missteps.
To begin with, the concert was wonderfully and thoughtfully programmed—an essential and often overlooked art in itself. The pairing, in each half of the concert, of Harbison’s The Supper at Emmaus and Bach’s Cantata BWV 6 with works by Zelenka (the Miserere and a Holy Week Responsoria, respectively) subtly and adroitly emphasized an overarching theme as well as a musical tradition.
That theme is best articulated by the opening words of the J. S. Bach Cantata, “Bleib bei uns” (Remain With Us). In the cantata, it refers to the light of Christ, sought in a world of increasing shadows. In the Harbison, it is the literal words of the disciples, asking the yet-unrecognized risen Christ to share a meal with them. And it echoes in the Zelenka works. The responsorial opens with “Recessit pastor noster (Gone from us is our Shepherd)”, and the Miserere entireillustrates the desire to mend more strongly one’s connection to God.
And it was that Miserere which opened the evening. Jan Dismas Zelenka was a masterful composer, a Czech contemporary of Bach, whose music has been only relatively recently explored and celebrated (the nearly 200-year old Miserere was given its first Boston performance last night). Much of his obscurity is due to the surprisingly few facts known of his life, and the fact that his music became a guarded state treasure after his death, precluding the creation of public editions for many years. Zelenka’s mastery is shown in his dramatic text setting, adventurous harmonic constructs, and complete contrapuntal fluency, often employing wild and unpredictable rhythms.
The opening moments of the Miserere embody nearly all this perfectly, and the orchestra and chorus invested fully in the high drama and profound musicality. The choir’s impeccable diction gave definition and gravity to the undulating imitative lines and impassioned cries, while the orchestra was equally enthusiastic but still well balanced to the voices.
While the grand choral gestures of the Miserere were as if carved from marble, the soprano solo, sung by long-time CS member Karyl Ryczek, was less solid and convincing. While Ryczek did offer impeccable passage work and an artfully executed cadenza, her vibrato was not at home in Zelenka’s textures or gestures, and her color palette was not diverse enough to explore the nuances of the lines. Often in the solo movement the orchestra bordered on a texture too thick and heavy for the text to be heard, but one can hardly blame them for getting a bit carried away in this universe of contrapuntal madhattery.
A lost moment came at the unexpected return of the surging, dissonant opening strains near the end of the piece that had, up to that point, gradually turned sunnier. It seems conductor David Hoose built to the change, as if it were the inevitable recapitulation of a classical symphony. It might be splitting artistic hairs, but this moment can also be shocking and surprising, if it is allowed to be an interruption rather than a culmination. Listeners can decide.
A high point was indeed was the banquet of musical riches delivered in the world premiere of John Harbison’s The Supper at Emmaus. Scored intentionally for the same ensemble as the Zelenka, and consciously cast in the style of a Bach cantata, the work aptly wedded old and new, and the ensemble gave a sure and confident performance that made this complex premiere come off as stable and polished as a repertoire piece, which it indeed may become.
The opening prelude sets the text “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” to dissonant and disembodied intervals, brayed by high oboes and open strings. The choir responded in kind to the orchestra, until they allude to Jesus’ prophecy of his own death, where everything focuses and unifies. From here, the scene is set, and a quartet of soloists narrates the story of the encounter at Emmaus. Soprano Lisa Lynch played the role of Evangelist, narrating the words directed from the King James, and did so with a light touch and sure intonation, which the orchestra sensitively supported. Baritone Dana Whiteside gave the part of the hidden Christ as rich a rendering as anyone would have hoped for in a Bach Passion. Tenor Jason Sabol and Mezzo Lynn Torgove sang the two disciples, often in complex duet, with security and occasional dramatic flair. All of the soloists were confident and emotive, completely at home with this music.
Combining the grit and mental muscle of Prokofiev (perhaps playing chess) with the inevitable lyricism of Rorem (perhaps if he joined a biker gang), the music led to the central line: “Abide with us”. This invitation from the disciples for Jesus to tarry with them echoed the overarching theme of the evening, the piece itself, and perhaps even grander philosophical and theological points, and Harbison set it with a clear and simple accompaniment that starkly contrasted the confusion and discord of the opening.
The final chorus, at once quirky and reverent, set a declamatory chorale against a folksy jig. The work refocused itself yet again at the end, with a beautiful setting of the final benediction, starting a capella and gradually involving the orchestra in a simple, yet modern, modal “amen cadence.”
There is only one word for the Zelenka responsorial that followed intermission, and it is exquisite. Achingly beautiful music, exquisitely performed. Sufficient to inspire listeners to seek out and explore all 27 responsorials in the set.
Finally came the Bach cantata whose name was the evening’s theme: Bleib bei uns, den es will Abend werden. Soloists Jennifer Webb (alto) and Peggy Pearson (English horn) breathed warm life into their duet-aria, while cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer nimbly executed the famed “piccolo cello” solo on its regular-sized counterpart. Bass Mark Andrew Cleveland gave a commendable performance, although tenor Eric Perry seemed to be suffering from some issues (that could be forgiven as nothing more than seasonal allergies). In sum the Cantata Singers performed Bach as one would come to expect from an ensemble whose raison d’être was the great master, and one which 50 years later, is still going strong.