David Hoose has, according to long-time choir member Majie Zeller, conducted over 232 performances of 158 different programs during his 38 years as director (now emeritus) of the Cantata Singers. Last Saturday, in honor of this impressive legacy, the ensemble invited him back to conduct a concert of three major works from the choral literature confronting—or at least addressing—the ever-timely theme of war. The performance took place live in Cambridge’s Sanders Theater; but it was also the organization’s first livestreamed event, a feature of which this reviewer took advantage while whiling away in southern Maine.
Farewell to Arms, op. 9, by British composer Gerald Finzi (1901–1956), for solo tenor and a medium size ensemble of strings and woodwinds opened the concert. Hoose’s well-written and informative notes outlining the history of this work, as well as that of the others on the concert, are worth the easy read. In this case, he notes that 20 years passed between the inception and publication of this work, a piece the sentiments of which were initially considered too anti war to release. As with most works by Finzi, the music is idyllic, almost unobtrusive, setting sonic scenes of green post-battle fields, and guns now homes to gentle doves. Other than a few quarreling mice and some distant drums, word painting is limited to the general air of pleasant peace, and Hoose did a marvelous job of simply indulging in that atmosphere. Tenor William Hite’s warm, gentle, nearly effortless voice—reminiscent of a younger Philip Langridge—was the perfect choice for this “melanbucolic” bit of English pastoralism.
Following Finzi came one of the last six mass settings by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Missa in tempori belli (Mass in Time of War). Much like Finzi, Haydn’s approach—typical of the late Classical style—is straight forward, though still intricate and multifaceted. In general, the cheerful texts are lively and the less cheerful texts less lively, though a few surprises, such as the remarkably modest “Osanna in excelsis,” make for welcome variety. The most expressive section of the work is a lovely, almost tender setting of “Benedictus qui venit” for vocal quartet, in which Hite, along with nimble soprano Karyl Ryczek, solid alto Jennifer Webb, and slightly brittle baritone Mark Andrew Cleveland, provided a beautifully balanced and eloquent interpretation. In all of this, Hoose brought out Haydn’s many subtle contrasts without betraying his essential pre-Romantic restraint, even in the last joyous section in which the plea for peace becomes a celebration of what life would be if we actually had it.
In the closer, the massive Dona nobis pacem, Finzi’s older countryman Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) set a mixture of Bible verses, poems by Walt Whitman, and a stirring few lines by John Bright; there is nothing reserved at all about this bold, at times bombastic work of powerful pacifism. Whitman’s poetry sets the mood of the first half with a fiery setting of “Beat! Beat! Drums,” which has so much rage ripping through the orchestral writing that any attempt at clear diction on the part of the chorus, even one as accomplished at the Cantata Singers, is buried in the tumult. Without a copy of the text, a listener is left to glean the meaning through the music’s din. A similar enunciative issue arises in “Dirge for Two Veterans” (Part 4) and in the final section of the work in which the brass choruses and flurries of percussion again mask the Biblical text, leaving it to the delirium of the music to convey the mood. None of this lack of choral clarity is the fault of the ensemble, but rather that of a composer who may have been too optimistic about vocal/instrumental balance.
Fortunately, Vaughan Williams was also capable of subtlety, as his setting of Whitman’s “Reconciliation” (Part 3) demonstrates. Baritone Brian Church’s lovely, slightly rough-hewn tone provided a warm take on the mild music that offered a welcome break from the bombast. But the greatest stroke of expressive and interpretive mastery of the evening was, in many ways, the simplest: the work opens with a setting of “Agnus dei” in which the final “dona nobis pacem” is sung by a sparsely accompanied solo soprano. This achingly enchanting phrase repeats in the middle of the piece and at its end. And if the composer intended for this part to be a seraph of sorts calling down to the battlefields, no singer could have been better suited to it than soprano Felicity Salmon. Her strong, crystalline voice shone angelically through the instrumentation with just enough passion and innocence to walk the line between humanity and divinity. It was an inspired gesture that Vaughan Williams chose to close the entire work with one last bit of quietly intense pleading for an end to all the violence.
After the program, Zeller and some others paid tribute to Hoose, who himself closed the evening with some entertaining anecdotes from his long career with this Boston ensemble. Let us hope he can add a few more to the 232 before retiring altogether.