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Cantata Singers Offers Three Raræ Aves

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Bruckner is being greeted in heaven by Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Carl Maria von Weber, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Joseph Haydn, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Sebastian Bach (playing the organ).

All-wind accompaniment is rare in choral music; the Cantata Singers’ end-of-season Friday concert  featured three such works in the gloriously resonant Italian Romanesque St. Paul Church in Cambridge before a friendly and eager audience. 

Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor, WAB 27, has its fans and critics to be sure. The reverent, 40-minute work can sometimes generate more pleasure for the transmitters than the receivers. Typical of Bruckner, he revised the piece repeatedly (we heard the fourth and final 1882 version), some 30 measures longer than the original and somewhat more intricate. With mixed chorus, at times on eight parts, but also with portions for four or six, the work soars, evoking medieval church music and beyond, and with only two solos (ably sung by tenor Jason Sabol) early in the Gloria and the Credo. Mostly a cappella, the Kyrie was seamless and breathtaking. The fugal ending  of the Gloria ushered towards musical heaven. In the Sanctus, which adapts  a motif from the Missa Brevis Sanctus of Palestrina, the massive counterpoint followed by brass after a pause, reached Bruckner’s intended tonal height, almost an aural heaven. The Benedictus, with its chromatic lines and unusual keys, sounded lofty. Finally, the Agnus Dei resolved with a sense of peace after its unusual suspensions. The wind-alone orchestration, even if executed well, as was the case here, can be, at times, intrusive, loud and nearly obstructionistic. That is not to say it lacked grandeur with its challenges; the 15 winds included superb musicians, all afforded the opportunity to play fortissimo. As a whole, the Bruckner brims with fantasy, reverence, fury and passion; some passages seem indescribably human in the sense of “the whole disaster” of life; other portions, banal. At best, one might say Bruckner in this Mass reveals his brilliant eccentricity; at the worst, one wonders if he was high on something when he wrote it.

The second half conferred easier listening and greater appreciation, at least judging by applause level. Stravinsky’s 1948 Mass, his only such work, provides a concise Latinate and somewhat austere prayer. Written between 1944-1948, without commission, spanning from his composing of Orpheus and The Rake’s Progress, it seems to many, highly personal. The programmatic juxtaposition forms an inevitable comparison to the Bruckner, in that the orchestration is also all wind—two oboes, English horn, 2 bassoons, two trumpets and three trombones. Both the Kyrie and Gloria begin with instruments alone for a few seconds, and return at intervals to the winds, bestowing a plaintive mood and ending with a peaceful Amen. Chanting and marching, the chorus dominated the Credo in a manner that Stravinsky would have approved, and expressed through the composer’s polyvalence.  The Sanctus, which also includes the Benedictus and Hosanna was effective and lush. The last Agnus Dei sounded soft and healing, with the final chord, unresolved, allows the last thoughts to evaporate into the unknown.  Cantata Singers members served as strong soloists—Lisa Lynch, soprano; Elizabeth Eschen, alto; Jeffrey Wang and Jason Sabol, tenors; Mark Andrew Cleveland, bass; and Tevan Goldberg, baritone), though sounded within the body of the piece.

Gabrieli’s motet Jubilate Deo à 8 from his Sacrae Symphoniae, written in 1598, lent a cheerful mood to end the evening. The quintessential Renaissance work suited St. Paul Church, with its echoic construction, reminiscent of San Marco’s in Venice.  Gabrieli, was the church organist at San Marco for four decades and the best-known composer of his day, reached an uplifting moment in this short work, which is performed variably—with and without instrumentation. Here, the group with winds provided an uplifting finale to the evening. 

Singer, conductor and musicologist Laura Pritchard delivered a captivating and well-attended pre-concert lecture, in which she illustrated her comments with show-and-tell scores and a delightful handout about Stravinsky. Music Director David Hoose, as always, inspired both performance and audience with his passionate conducting (and splendid program notes). A post-concert reception pleased the crowd as well and facilitated the sense of community and support. The Can ta ta 2019-20 season can be seen HERE.

Julie Ingelfinger, an amateur pianist, has long loved classical music.  She also enjoys her day job as a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children at MGH and as a deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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