On a festive day, the Cantata Singers offer a probing program of spiritual music
While Boston streets flooded with St. Patrick’s Day festivities Sunday afternoon, Jordan Hall was filled with heavenly sounds as the Cantata Singers performed a rich and moving program of choral music.
David Hoose, currently finishing his third decade as music director, led the chorus and string orchestra in religiously inspired works by James MacMillan, Marjorie Merryman, and Robert Schumann.
MacMillan’s twenty-year-old Seven Last Words from the Cross finally made its Boston premiere Sunday afternoon. The music of the Scottish composer has frequented these parts as of late. His opera Clemency premiered early last month with the Boston Lyric Opera.
Completed in 1993 as a commission for BBC Television, MacMillan’s 50-minute cantata—perhaps the most outward musical expression of his deep Catholic faith—combines gospel texts with related passages from Catholic Palm Sunday and Good Friday services.
Seven Last Words is an accessible panoply of styles, mixing jarring dissonance, colorful writing for voices, and microtonal string glissandi within an overall lush tonal palette.
From a soft, almost distant, beginning, Seven Last Words slowly builds to a cascade of angular figures in the upper strings that swirl above the stately, reciting-tones that permeate the chorus. The second part bursts with the cry “Woman, Behold Thy Son!,” in dense harmony for the voices. Here, MacMillan makes handy use of dramatic silences—sometimes as long as 10 beats—between recurring statements.
Expressive duets for each section in the third set, taken from “Ecce Ligum Crucis” (Behold the Wood of the Cross), comprise waving, even shaking melismas in a style reminiscent of 13th-century polyphony. The full chorus, backed by strings, answered with luminous tone in the closing phrase “Venite adoremus” (Come let us adore him).
The Cantata Singers and orchestra took listeners into the depths for the tortuous “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani” (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me), which the musicians performed with sustained intensity in each repetition.
For “I thirst,” the chorus maintained similar power within the music’s spare texture. Stabbing string chords that opened the penultimate setting, “It is finished,” gradually unwound into an almost discombobulated ramble while the chorus carried on its sharp elocution.
After resounding statements of the final “Father, into thy hand I commend my spirit,” the chorus rested, leaving the strings to bring the work to a close with a moving lament. But there is little repose in this music. The violins strive ever upward as the lower strings rest momentarily on sustained chords before fading away. No veils are torn, no mountains crumble, and no earth is moved in MacMillan’s telling of Christ’s death. Instead, the audience is left to ponder the finality of the moment as the violins conclude with high, soft, oscillating seconds.
After intermission, Marjorie Merryman’s Beauty, Grief, and Grandeur (2010), also heard in its Boston debut, brightened the mood.
Scored for chorus and chamber orchestra of strings, piano, and percussion, Merryman’s glistening composition explores three verses by the 19th-century Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Each verse is religious in nature. The first, “Pied Beauty,” in a potpourri of alliteration, praises God for “dappled things,” such as “fire-coal, chestnut-falls, and finches’ wings.” The second, “Spring and Fall,” reflects on the passing of the seasons, age, and the sorrow of days long past. And the third, “God’s Grandeur,” the longest of the set, tells of the eternal, ever-springing nature of the Holy Ghost from the failings of mankind.
Merryman’s score features sheer, often colorful orchestral texture and warm choral writing, all of which the Cantata Singers and orchestra played with polish.
Sunday’s performance featured soprano Karyl Ryczek, who possesses a sweet-toned upper register that floated elegantly over the ensemble in the second movement. Hoose and company rendered the celebratory third song with keen rhythmic energy.
The Cantata Singers remained on a hopeful path with Schumann’s flavorful but rarely-heard Vier doppelchörige Gesänge, Op. 141. Schumann composed these four songs in 1849 for double a cappella choir. Sunday’s performance featured an added dimension with Hoose’s orchestration for strings, which highlighted the vocal lines of the original.
Hoose conducted the singers and musicians in the first song, based on Friedrich Rückert’s “An die Sterne,” with an easy, supple flow. The choir’s deliberate approach to the second text, Joseph von Zedlitz’s “Ungewisses Licht,” gave life to the narrative about a wanderer roaming in the wilderness.
Another Zedlitz poem, “Zuversicht,” the third of the set, is noteworthy in Schumann’s setting for its Palestrina-like imitative passages. The Cantata Singers performed with crisp diction and a rich tonal blend that brought clear communication between the double-choir parts.
Hoose’s orchestration supplied depth and sparkle to the final song of the collection, a setting of Göthe’s “Talismane.” With energy, the chorus swelled to almost oratorio-like power with the phrase “To God belongs the Orient!/ To God belongs the Occident!”
Throughout, Hoose conducted with sharp focus on the musical expression. The final, soft-rendered “Amen” brought closure to an afternoon of probing music that would give pause to even the most convinced atheist.
In their final concert of the season, Cantata Singers will perform Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, Zelenka’s Missa votiva in E minor, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 47 in G, 8 p.m. May 10 at Jordan Hall. cantatasingers.org; 617-868-5885
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