“At The Crossroads,” part two of Emmanuel Music’s season opener, continued its thematic arc of “Folk Tales and Myths” to a substantial extent, but completely so only if you squinted. It also explicitly and implicitly celebrated the ensemble’s own “folk” in repertoire and personnel. The event, given live at Emmanuel Church Sunday afternoon, was also live-streamed, which is how we, at 1,500 miles’ remove, experienced it.
To begin, Emmanuel celebrated one of its most illustrious and long-term colleagues, composer and former Principal Guest Conductor John Harbison, with the chamber version of his 2012 Crossroads (we had to dig around for the date, as it was inexplicably omitted from the online program materials). The composer’s note informed us that this had been his third venture in setting the poetry of Nobelist Louise Glück (a third generation American still brandishing its umlaut). The 2009 collection A Village Life had struck Harbison (and many others, to judge by its reviews on Amazon) as a departure in style for the poet, a bit more objective narrative and less autobiographical in tone. It nevertheless continues the poet’s typical themes of loss and isolation, this time in the context of a rooted community. In Harbison’s chosen excerpts, Twilight,” “Primavera” and “Crossroads,” we discerned no real mythology or folk tales, though Glück’s earlier work is rich in these influences.
Harbison’s setting, for soprano (the ever-incisive Kendra Colton, a frequent Harbison collaborator), oboe (Peggy Pearson, still at the top of her game), string quartet (Heidi Braun-Hill and Rose Drucker, violins; Joan Ellersick, viola; Sarah Freiberg, cello), and contrabass (Randall Zigler), came paired with another for soprano, oboe and string orchestra, reflecting the diverse organizations that collaborated to commission it. It prefaces each song with a refrain—lyrical and surprisingly cadential—that, Harbison says, is meant to invoke the community and its norms. The musical language of the settings themselves is rather less straightforward, but nevertheless sounds Harbisonian in every way the public has come to admire: finely wrought, pellucid in texture, attractively stretched tonal in idiom, and attentive to textual nuances…apparently.
“Twilight” began with a pizzicato riff but thereafter unfurled in unhurried fashion with occasionally Bachian gestures; Colton and Pearson shone, but—since the texts were not included in the program materials and if they were shown to the live audience in the “side titles” they were not to those of us online—even with headphones it was not possible to parse the words sufficiently to offer comment here on either Harbison’s manner of setting or Colton’s of delivering them, other than to be impressed by her body language and characteristically direct vocalizations. The same comment goes for the rest of the work, so we hope that readers who were present could contribute their thoughts. “Primavera” came as a whimsical march somewhat reminiscent of Britten, with a striking “B” section of open fifth melody and harmony. The title song, introduced by a splendid duet of oboe and violin (Braun-Hill), featured dramatic parlandos and intense emotion mysteriously undercut by neoclassical arpeggiation, as it wound down to (going by the description) the awareness of isolation at approaching death.
The longer piece of the afternoon was—what else for Emmanuel Music?—a Bach cantata (though its composer styled it a “drama through music”) in one of his uncommon secular schemas, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Let us [take] care, let us watch [over]), also known as “Hercules at the Crossroads” or “Hercules’s Choice,” BWV 213 (1733). The occasion for the work was a birthday celebration for Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony, and the libretto (which is mercifully available online from other sources than the somewhat random and incomplete titles made available to us streamers) was by Bach’s frequent collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, d/b/a Picander (hmm, Christian Friedrich on Friedrich Christian). The dramatis personae consist of Hercules (alto Carrie Cheron), Pleasure or Vice—you know, Sportin’ Life (soprano Susan Consoli), Virtue (tenor Jonas Budris) and Mercury (baritone Dana Whiteside). Hercules, in the parable, must choose whether to succumb to the seductions of the easy road or take the strenuous but ultimately rewarding path of virtue (no points for guessing which one prevails). The Crown Prince isn’t mentioned by name until the final two numbers (of 12), but the opening chorus with charming ambiguity implicates both the parable and the recipient of the avuncular advice. This crossroads story, which may go back into Greek mythology well into the second millennium BC, has served for many an adaptation, our favorite of which is the Hawthorne story “The Celestial Railway” that formed the basis for the “Comedy” movement of Ives’s Fourth Symphony.
It’s also not much of a fair fight. Despite a deliciously voluptuous aria for Vice early on, and one oblique confrontation with Virtue in a recitative, the bulk of the argumentation, such as it is (mostly didactic platitudes) comes from Virtue, with Hercules never much in doubt about what path to take. A charming echo pastorale aria has Herc putting leading questions to the echo—we object!—whose answers epitomize confirmation bias. All the vocal performances were splendid, generally eschewing the cartoonish and putting forth real personality and verve. The final recitative and chorus, in which Mercury makes his only solo contributions (of which Whiteside made effective clarion use), brings the point back home to the Crown Prince, for whose virtuous development the participants entreat. The instrumental ensemble, which augmented the sextet of the Harbison (with Pearson occasionally picking up the oboe d’amore and Braun-Hill the viola) with Jennifer Slowik, oboe, Whitacre Hill and Michael Bellofatto, horns, and Ian Watson, harpsichord, produced with elegant phrasing and perfectly balanced textures in both works under Music Director Ryan Turner.
Emmanuel Music dedicated this concert to Pat Krol, its long-serving Executive Director, who retired at the end of last season; the Herculean theme paid a direct tribute to the many seemingly impossible labors she performed during her tenure.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.