Best known for its cycles of Bach cantatas, Emmanuel Music gave a concert featuring music for string orchestra and voice Friday night at the Longy School. The sensitive programming of Artistic Director Ryan Turner allowed the wide-ranging repertoire, from Mendelssohn to Stravinsky to a new work by John Harbison, not only to achieve a cogent unity but also to reveal some fascinating interconnections.
Entitled “Crossroads,” the concert’s nominal nexus was composers who drew a decisive part of their style or approach from Bach (read: all composers), but again, the connections between the composers themselves and their works were more much tangible. Mendelssohn, whose prodigious early String Symphony No. 2 was heard, was a Bach scholar, as was Hugo Wolf, whose tortured perfection in miniature and lighter side was revealed in a collection of Mörike-Lieder and the Italian Serenade. Connections to Bach aside, Wolf appeared more as the un-Mendelssohn, in all things but craftsmanship (and lack of longevity). Stravinsky of course knew Bach too, but his connection to Wolf seemed more pertinent; both took music to apparent end points, with Stravinsky doubling back to the ways of the past to create things anew. Harbison shared a connection with all these composers and in this sense his piece Crossroads, after which the concert itself was named, seemed the evening’s locus.
Turner led the chamber orchestra of 19 strings deftly and confidently, and they responded with the immediacy and dynamism possible only with a small group. The orchestra’s size was well suited to the evening’s repertoire, and aside from somewhat persistent intonation issues in the second violins over the first half, performed superbly.
Opening with Mendelssohn’s youthful Second Sinfonia for Strings in D Major, which bookended with the Stravinsky Concerto in D which ended the concert, it was apparent the conductor had a plan, and the orchestra complied with a rich color palate, humor, and muscle as needed. The only downside to this level of careful construction and execution is that, as in the second movement’s bittersweet canzona-like Andante, the result can be more glassy than warm, like a work of art held at arm’s length in a museum case. In sum though, the Mendelssohn was thoughtfully performed and served as a fitting introduction to the evening.
The Wolf Mörike-Lieder which followed, featuring mezzo Krista River and the orchestra arrangement of Patrick Castillo, started out with a bit of the steely perfection of the Mendelssohn, but quickly attained human shades. A high point came early when, in Auf ein altes Bild, the singer describes a painting with the Christchild playing with the tree of the cross, equally young, growing in the background—the tinge of the major/minor mixture, and the fact that the singer does not cadence, turns the song on its head, though ultimately the orchestra finds an inevitable major cadence alone.
Wolf’s Italian Serenade, which rounded out the first half, seemed on paper to be at a strange, central place in a program designed in mirror-halves, but after the set of five Mörike-Lieder, Wolf’s bouncy optimism and wit provided a fine return to equilibrium.
John Haribson’s Crossroads, a setting of poetry by Louise Glück for soprano, strings and oboe, opened the second half. Serving as the titular inspiration for the concert, and a logical counterpart to the Wolf, it evinced all the intellectual and emotional gravitas to fill the roles. The words, by former US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Glück were given life by soprano Kendra Colton, and the oboe part—not quite a solo, but a partner to the voice—was intoned wonderfully by Peggy Pearson.
In three songs, “Twilight,” “Primavera,” and “Crossroads,” Glück paints scenarios that often rival Mörike in their unsettled nature or their outright dismay. The music though is never completely given over the fatalism. In the first, the voice muses about the only slice of the day they can think, and the oboe becomes their revere; the harmonic lattice of springtime reminded one of Britten’s setting of Tennyson, and the final duo-soliloquy on death and the things of life, the singer and oboe meet face to face, as it were. Throughout the work, the oboe is partner to the voice; first as psyche, then as companion, finally as a kind of nemesis, of a welcome adversary. Harbison’s is self-evident music; the character is always definite, even when undefined. It earns its relevance with the quiet assurance of its own identity. The music is completely itself, like the most abstract music of Bach or Brahms. Harbison can also write a straight-up-lament, march, pastoral, etc., but when he lives in a more abstract world, he can touch on these things instead of hitting us over the head.
The Stravinsky Concerto in D, that ended the evening, was also self-evident music, and also effectively looked back to the beginning of the concert and the Mendelssohn (which was trying to look forward). Stravinsky’s neoclassical works always seem like the Picasso quote about learning one’s whole life to paint like a child; while in youth a composer, like the teenage Mendelssohn, always tries to break down walls and forge new paths, mainly with unfounded effects, Stravinsky as an older man penned quietly self-assured and self-contained works which gave him freedom of concept rather than exploration. The Concerto didn’t seem the ideal repertoire for the ensemble, facing some rhythmical uncertainty; it did not ‘pop’ like the other music on the program, since the ensemble seemed unwilling to dive in. The result was a cautious, if 98% correct, reading, which nevertheless fittingly balanced out the carefully-chosen and well-executed program.