MIT-based composer Elena Ruehr has three premieres this month. Saturday saw the first, in the hands of David Hoose and the Cantata Singers at Jordan Hall: the inaugural concert of the ensemble’s 51st season. Then the San Francisco Contemporary Players will perform her sextet It’s About Time, in Berkeley. Finally, the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth will sing Cassandra in the Temples, a collaboration between Ruehr and librettist Gretchen Henderson and a project for which Ruehr was awarded a Guggenheim earlier this year.
Much of Ruehr’s output draws inspiration from mythology, poetry, and modern fiction. Most notably, her first cello concerto (premiered 2012) took its inspiration and title from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. In keeping with this tradition, Eve, a cantata for chorus, orchestra, and soloists sets, from the King James Version of Genesis, the text of the temptation of Eve. Ruehr’s approach is stylized and minimal, albeit written in an affable tonal palette. The composition introduces Eden and its well-drawn inhabitants in shimmering tone-clusters and ethereal suspensions—if Haydn’s or Copland’s Creator is the epitome of majesty and pomp, Ruehr’s is far less flashy—out from which slithers, in a sudden minor shift, the serpent, who proceeds to test a doe-eyed Eve. The sophistication of the Eve lies not in this half oratorio, half morality play exchange but in a setting of the text that is split between Gnostic glee at the tasting of the fruit and Catholic despair that foreshadows the fall. This conceptual dissonance is especially brought out in the text’s final lines, in which Eve and Adam taste the fruit and “…the eyes of them both were opened.” The phrase is repeated over and over—more mantra than narrative—reaching each time for a different conclusive moment. At times it is despair, at others wonder, and, just as we are led to a decisive Handelian jubilation (Ruehr notes the quotation from the Messiah), there is an abrupt pause; we return to hazy clusters and an ambiguity that is unsure of whether the fall from Eden is bad or good, punctuating the close with an indelible question mark.
In a return to the ensemble’s founding tradition of presenting Bach cantatas (almost ubiquitous now, but live performances were harder to come by in 1964), Eve was sandwiched between S.77 and 195 (Du sollst Gott, deinen Herren, lieben and Dem Gerechten muβ das Licht immer wieder aufgehen). Christ’s instruction, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart …” introduces the monumental S.77, deeply concerned with devotion and faith. Musically, this is illustrated by ornate polyphony loosely draped over staid Lutheran hymn tunes on a clarion trumpet in the first movement. While the cantata moves through recit and aria, it is this central interplay between bumbling human elements (recits, arias, choruses) against the sheer majesty of the brass that illustrates a pure devotion in Christ’s guidance. The entire meditation culminates in a marmoreal chorale, Herr, durch den Glauben wohn in mir (“Lord, through faith dwell in me…”), replete with the full sonic palette of the orchestra and portatif. But the chorale ends on an airy feminine cadence, both audience and ensemble left in mid-air. Although Christ’s message was clear, we are left wondering if this truly is the path forward.
Hoose placed this cantata before Ruehr’s Eve, consciously drawing the audience through a clear story arc. The traversal of S.77 with its uncertain devotion to God is an obvious prelude, uncertain of the consequences of defying God, but it also leads naturally to the concluding S.195, a betrothal cantata that revels in a union made in the presence of faith. Hoose supplemented the extant version of the cantata with two movements from S.30 to balance the two parts of S.195 structurally by supplementing a missing alto aria and tenor recit.
As performed by the Cantata Singers, the triptych was confident and sonically vivid, brilliant in realizing thoughtful programming with the necessary bravura. S.77 exploded with a wall of sound bolstered with the Protestant confidence of the Lutheran hymns. Terry Everson on trumpet was the cornerstone, playing with a clear, consistent tone of which the Lord Himself would have been proud. Hannah McMeans’s soprano aria Mein Gott, ich liebe dich von Herzen balanced a precise purity and pearly luster that truly blossoms in her upper range. Alto Carola Emrich-Fisher imbued the fifth movement, Ache, es bleibt in meiner Liebe, with a mahogany timbre and a supple translucence that paired delightfully with Everson’s considerable trumpet. Tenor Eric Perry and bass Mark Andrew Cleveland sang recitatives—I only wish I could have heard their substantial talents in more extended arias. The internal solo movements of the cantata led to a somber and beautifully balanced hymn. Both pieces were heighted by the contrast between high Baroque and Ruehr’s 21st-century minimalism. The premiere of Eve was an unqualified success, and both chorus and orchestra are to be commended for their work. Soprano Farah Darliette and bass Will Prapestis interpreted solo the parts of Eve and the serpent, playing off each other well: Darliette, although weaker in her lower range, has a bejeweled tone that nicely complemented Prapestis’s supple baritone. Eve found both chorus and orchestra in top form, allowing the ensemble to show off the array of color and texture of which it is capable. The repetition of “And the eyes of them both were opened” for the ending was nothing short of mesmerizing—each restatement thoughtfully recounting the different possibilities that disobedience provides.
The concluding cantata seemed somewhat strained. Balance was a consistent problem here, as a solo quartet (Mark Andrew Cleveland, Lisa Lynch, Jennifer Webb, and Eric Perry) was hard to hear over a more substantial orchestra than in the first Bach cantata. This may have contributed to a breathless quality in the first choral movement, indicative of an overzealous tempo. Things settled as the cantata progressed and the variety of textures was a spectacle. Members of the chorus also gave fine solos: Eric Perry returned again for recitative movements, and Dana Whiteside’s profound bass graced both an aria and recitative of this cantata (Dem Freudinlich gerechter Frommen followed by Rühmet Gottes Güt und Treu). With pristine diction Lisa Lynch provided a delightful read of the soprano recit Wohlan, so knüpfet den ein Band. A highlight of the final piece was Jennifer Webb’s alto aria, Auf und rühmt des Höchsten Güte—her somber, wine-dark alto played nicely against the lilting string accompaniment and provided surprisingly clear articulation in the florid melismatic passages of the movement. After the uncertainties of the earlier two cantatas, a well-balanced choral movement concluded the evening sure-footedly.