in: Reviews

May 1, 2018

Revisiting the Edenic Sounds

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Elena Ruehr (file photo)

Cappella Clausura’s “Eve & Adam” placed the Gnostic reversal behind MIT professor Elena Ruehr’s cantata Eve at the center of its Saturday evening concert at Emmanuel Church. Eve asks its audience to view the character from Genesis not as a passive woman who brings about the ultimate fall, but rather a powerful bringer of knowledge. Gnosticism was but one of the retellings that crowded the stage: Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament represented the Orthodox tradition focusing on Adam and the exile from Eden. Chants by Hildegard von Bingen represented the Catholic tradition, which views the Virgin Mary as the natural telos of the sin incurred by Eve.

The Cantata Singers had premiered Ruehr’s Eve in 2014 by (reviewed HERE). Her simultaneously playful and thoughtful cantata brims with possibility and direction. In Ruehr’s hands, Eden begins as a world of ambiguous possibility—a mélange of bewildering dissonances: this Eden seems to be able to rise into Paradise just as easily it may slide into the Exile. A shift to a minor key as the serpent begins to tempt Eve portends this latter conclusion, but we are quick to realize that this exile from Paradise is not all mourning and destruction. As Eve and Adam taste the fruit, the music meditates on their awakening, setting the text “and the eyes of them both were opened” in multiple versions, each time emulating different composers and choral works that reflect on human learning (Ruehr notes her quotation of the “Hallelujah Chorus”). Through these allusions, Ruehr plays with the various interpretations of the eating of the forbidden fruit, never able to settle on a single meaning: at times this final passage takes the form of a somber realization of the fall from grace, at times a joyful exclamation, in others, a wide-eyed wonder: Ruehr’s take on the fall comes replete with emotion, art, and culture, bearing with it horrible and wonderful possibilities. Organist Louise Mundinger joined the chorus and the string orchestra in a thoughtful, exciting read. Amelia Le Clair led an unstinting interpretation of the score’s wild shifts in mood and vivid colors. Baritone Will Prapestis’s brash, resonant serpent toyed memorably with soprano Farah Darliette’s reserved, yet expressive, Eve.

Pärt’s cantata Adam’s Lament (2009) occupies a world diametrically opposed to the jubilant conclusion of Eve. Its text, from Saint Silouan the Athonite of the Russian Orthodox tradition, envisions Adam wandering the earth in sorrow after the exile; this unbearable humiliation gives way to despair when he witnesses Cain slaying Abel. His vision turns darker still, as Adam realizes that the world and all that is to come will have started in his disgrace. This deeply personal meditation also internalizes Adams woe over the first murder into tortured, penitent relationship with God. Pärt’s setting steeps richly in the tradition language of the Orthodox church, borrowing to engage with Silouan’s vision of fallen humanity. In large part, the composer gives an approachable and expressive voice to the text in the form of comforting, chorales accompanied by lush orchestral textures. But often the listener is left alone in a spare sound-world of jagged string accompaniment thinly supporting dark, chant-like melodies. Pärt’s artistry lies not in the details of the melodies, but in the minimal use of ideas that seems to wander: the disorienting lament leaves us seemingly at the mercy of the capricious musical world Pärt constructs. Singing in the original Russian, the choir evinced persistent energy throughout, drawing out satisfying sonorities, though the orchestra at times covered the ensemble’s expertly blended, mature sound in the vast space of the church. However, both orchestra and choir showed unflagging commitment, imbuing Pärt’s Lament with a subtle emotional intelligence.

Hildegard von Bibgen

Placid sequences by Hildegard von Bingen bookended the emotional and musical extremes of these two cantatas. The texts that form the basis of this work provide a version of the story of the Edenic exile that focuses not on the aftermath, but rather on the hope for its resolution that is at the heart of the Catholic faith: O Deus extols praise for the destruction of sin and the possibility of return to grace. The unaccompanied women blended impeccably with a graceful, flexible line. The men of the ensemble intelligently rendered Cum processit—a Marian sequence drawing the parallel between the fall of Adam and redemption by Mary—with sensitive support from the strings. The concert closed with Nunc aperuit, a successful collaboration between sopranos Adriana Repetto and Janet Stone, which praises Mary for bringing redemption after the fall. Cappella Clausura’s fine effort realizing LeClair’s inspired programming secured an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Sudeep Agarwala is a scientist by day and an amateur musician who has performed with many choral groups in and around Boston. He has been writing for the Intelligencer since 2011.

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