Country music (Austrian, that is) goes to Harvard in Back Bay Chorale’s “Die Jahreszeiten”

May 6, 2012 at 2:08 pm

By David Wright

"The Wedding Dance in a Barn" by Pieter Bruegel, 1616.

Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons), music’s answer to the landscapes of Bruegel, brought its country verities to the intellectual confines of Harvard University on Saturday night.

The Back Bay Chorale—an ensemble named for a city neighborhood that was once a body of water—combined with professional instrumentalists and vocal soloists in Sanders Theatre for a lively rendering of Haydn’s oratorio about rural folk living in harmony with nature.

Although he was the toast of music connoisseurs across Europe, Haydn enjoyed playing the rube at times, reminding people of his village origins and saying he was “forced to become original” by years of isolation while employed at a nobleman’s country estate.

However, by his own account, this urbane citizen of Vienna rolled his eyes when librettist Gottfried van Swieten brought him a text full of frogs, bees, etc. for him to imitate in music.  Haydn held his nose and composed what he called “this Frenchified trash,” and quite charmingly too, but he was more interested in human emotions, which is what Die Jahreszeiten is mainly about.

Which brings us back to the human voice, the primary communicator of emotion in music.  Amateur choruses typically are long on enthusiasm and short on precision and clarity of tone, but the Back Bay singers, led by their director Scott Allen Jarrett, rose above that standard by singing unerringly on pitch, even in difficult high entrances, and managing Haydn’s gnarly fugues handily.  There was some room for improvement in attacking and releasing together—not made easier by the spread-out formation necessitated by Sanders’s shallow stage—and in projecting consonants clearly.

The three vocal soloists carry most of the work’s poetic and philosophical freight.  Although the libretto gives them rustic-sounding names—Hanne (soprano), Lukas (tenor), and Simon (bass)—the oratorio has no dramatic plot.  Soprano Teresa Wakim and tenor Zachary Wilder, however, exchanged glances during their ensembles, deftly foreshadowing the love duet for Hanne and Lukas in the Autumn section, which ended with Wilder impulsively planting a kiss on Wakim’s cheek, bringing a chuckle from the audience.

The three soloists were noticeably mismatched vocally, perhaps owing to the last-minute substitution of bass David Kravitz for the indisposed Christòpheren Nomura.  While Wakim and Wilder sang at moderate volume, with the emphasis on subtlety of phrasing, Kravitz often sounded loud and tonally raw, with heavy vibrato.  However, in more ruminative passages at a lower dynamic level, Kravitz proved as expressive a singer as his colleagues.  And the three singers all blended nicely for their ensembles.

Soprano Wakim ushered in Spring by singing the praise of gentle breezes in her exceptionally clear, liquid voice, and for a time it seemed she would be relegated to dispensing sweetness and light for the whole evening.  But eventually her character’s flirtation with Lukas, and telling a salty story by Winter’s fireside, gave her part more emotional range, which Wakim took full advantage of, vocally and dramatically.  She also dispatched the occasional coloratura passage with lightness and ease.

Whether he was suffering voice trouble or it was just his style, tenor Wilder played vocal “small ball” all evening, even turning down the volume on his one bravura aria.  However, he had the finest German diction of the night; one could almost hear the words bouncing off the back wall of the theater.  And his expressive musical phrasing was worth leaning forward to hear.

The orchestra of top Boston-area freelancers appeared headed for trouble in the work’s overture, when the sections were so out of balance that the strings virtually disappeared whenever the winds were playing.  Conductor Jarrett was able to correct this situation with help from the chorus and soloists, who took over the musical spotlight, and from Haydn’s endlessly imaginative deployment of instrumental forces throughout the work.

It was hard to complain about the winds being too loud when they made such vivid contributions, not just as frogs and bees, but in Peggy Pearson’s rich-toned oboe obbligato as a shepherd’s pipe in Hanne’s aria Welche Labung für die Sinne, or Joseph Demko’s and Nancy Hudgins’s big, boisterous horn calls in the frenzied hunt scene, to name just two of many superb solos.

But in the end, it was the aged Haydn’s still-fruitful imagination that was the star as one strolled through his gallery of detailed musical landscapes.  His paean to the miracle of life’s annual renewal produced a miracle of another kind: When was the last time you sat through a musical performance with no plot lasting two-and-three-quarters hours (including one intermission) and emerged feeling refreshed, with a tune on your lips?

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