Sharp contrasts and rarefied beauty from the Cantata Singers

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 04.04.2016

In an adventurous programming gambit Friday night (April 1) the Cantata Singers and Ensemble under David Hoose matched up two opposites – Johann Sebastian Bach and Anton Webern – and concluded with the monumental Brahms Requiem, all impeccably rendered.

David Hoose, conductor

The near-capacity Jordan Hall audience sat rapt for the hour-long Brahms and burst into a standing ovation after the quiet climactic sigh. Everyone on the crowded stage, the 53 singers, the full orchestra and Hoose himself, looked spent as they took their bows.

Hoose is known for his creative programming (he calls the process “exhilarating”) and explained himself in his thoughtful program notes. He seeks to combine pieces that “suggest vital interactions, dynamic relationships”.  He also likes to surprise his audience. And so opening the evening with the rarely heard Webern orchestration of the Fuga a 6 voci, the Ricercar, from Bach’s The Musical Offering (BWV 1079) met his criteria. 

Webern composed this homage to Bach in 1934-35, nearly 200 years after the Bach original and managed to inject modern tonalities without losing the Bach feel. Indeed, Webern did not tamper with Bach’s written notes or rhythms; the orchestration takes the original as a point of departure. Under conductor Hoose, the orchestra sometimes achieved the tone colors of an organ, employing muted brass and lower strings to hold back the dissonance.

Composer John Harbison dissected the Webern musical canon in a witty pre-concert talk to a full house at the adjacent Williams Hall.  He noted that Webern has virtually disappeared from the modern concert stage, and he welcomed this revival. (Harbison, 77, escaped injury when he took his place at the grand piano for a demonstration of the open Bach-Webern figure, and promptly fell off the bench, landing flat on his back. The audience gasped as he jumped up, dusted himself off and proceeded with his lecture unfazed.)

John Harbison, composer

From the Webern, the program moved on the pure Bach, performing the Cantata BWV 60, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O Eternity, You Word of Thunder). The cantata purports to be a dialogue between fear and hope, with the alto representing fear and the tenor hope.  Regrettably the rich alto of Lynn Torgove was almost totally drowned out by the orchestra. Tenor Eric Christopher Perry shined through impressively. 

Hoose’s helpful program notes provided the full text in German and English. The dialogue contrasts opposite attitudes. Ms. Torgove sang of “the fear of death, the last pain.”  Perry replied that “the fire of suffering is hot but so be it! It purifies me to the praise of God.” Following four solo-dominated sections, the full chorale surged forth, a magical moment that blended with the orchestra, precisely controlled by Hoose. 

The program then swung back to modernism, this time displaying Webern at his most radical. Five Movements for String Orchestra, op. 5b, was a fresh collection of short atonal pieces, some a few minutes long, with delicate pluckings and high-register strings. The ensemble produced what Webern apparently strived to create – seemingly fragmentary passages that reward an attentive listener with linked phrases of rarefied beauty.

Majie Zeller, mezzo-soprano

Following intermission, the expanded orchestra crowded onto the Jordan Hall stage, the Cantata Singers on their risers behind, for the magisterial Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 68. This was a centerpiece of a richly conceived program. The pre-concert talk by Harbison helped make sense of the non-liturgical work that is nevertheless concerned with the beyond. Harbison described Brahms as a man who “feared the afterlife but not in the context of organized religion”.

In this interpretation, the orchestra seemed to accompany the glorious soprano solo work by Majie Zeller and the even more captivating bass of Mark Andrew Cleveland. The markings of the seven sections range from “slowly with feeling” and “march character” to “briskly” and finally “solemnly”. At the end of each section, Hoose brought the orchestra and chorus to full power to dramatize the Biblical texts chosen personally by Brahms.

Mark Andrew Cleveland, bass-baritone

Of particular note Friday night was that four members of the Emmanuel Wind Quintet performed together in this concert -- conductor Hoose, the horn player in EWQ, flutist Christopher Krueger, oboist Peggy Pearson, and clarinetist Bruce Creditor 35 years after winning the Naumburg Award in Chamber Music.

This review first appeared on the Boston Musical Intelligencer's site. Posted here with the kind permission of the author.

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