Successful Harbison premiere closes Cantata Singers season in reflective style

May 10, 2014 at 2:52 pm

By David Wright

John Harbison’s complete “The Supper at Emmaus” received its world premiere from the Cantata Singers Friday night at Jordan Hall.

In both Christian theology and devotional art, Good Friday and Easter occupy center stage, but the biblical story’s postscript, the encounter of the apostles with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, has exerted a fascination of its own for painters and composers.

Friday night in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, the Cantata Singers and a first-rate small orchestra conducted by David Hoose performed a rich program of mostly Emmaus-inspired works old and new, including the world premiere of John Harbison’s complete cantata The Supper at Emmaus.

Portions of the Harbison work, composed this year, had previously been performed by Emmanuel Music, which co-commissioned the piece with Cantata Singers, but Friday’s performance was the first for the work as a unified whole.

Complementing the new cantata on the program were works by J.S. Bach and his Czech contemporary Jan Dismas Zelenka.

In a program note, Harbison described the Emmaus episode as following a classic story trope: A Stranger Comes to Town.  Certainly the moment is full of dramatic potential, as two of Jesus’s grieving followers walk, dine with, and are taught by their risen Lord for a long time before they recognize him.

It is a story line that invites suspenseful dissonances, resolved with angel harps and heavenly trumpets.  In Friday’s premiere, however, Harbison proved to be interested less in the story’s surface details than in the drama between the words.

Following the church-cantata model of combining narration with meditation, Harbison set the narrative itself as a cantata for four solo singers and orchestra, bookending it with two choruses on other biblical passages: the angel’s words to the women at the tomb, and Paul’s avowal of faith in redemption, from his first letter to Timothy.

The angel’s initial words “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” echo the gently reproving tone of Jesus’s words on the way to Emmaus (“O fools, and slow of heart to believe what the prophets have spoken…”) and link the opening chorus to the narrative that follows.

Harbison heard neither triumph nor consolation in the angel’s words “He is not here, but is risen,” but a disruption of the natural order of things—and set this text in an agitated throb of strings and an excited babble of vocal counterpoint, setting the stage for the revelation in Emmaus.

But far from hurling dramatic thunderbolts, Harbison’s setting of the biblical narrative itself preserved the mystery of the encounter, which the composer described as “a glowing recalcitrant found object”—not a bad description of this cantata itself, actually.

“Objective” would also be a fair description of Harbison’s smooth writing for the solo soprano as narrator, with the bass as Jesus and tenor and alto as the disciples singing in choppier syncopated rhythms more expressive of personal emotions.

The story’s most deeply resonant passage is the words of the disciples to the mysterious stranger, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”  This is, in fact, the text of Bach’s Cantata 6, which Harbison said was on his mind when he conceived this work, and which was performed at the end of Friday’s program.

In his cantata, Harbison pointed up this passage by having tenor and alto sing together for the first time, with a minimal accompaniment of pizzicato cellos.  They sang in duet for the rest of the work, always in close imitation, as if the two disciples were echoing each other’s thoughts.

Tenor Jason Sabol and alto Lynn Torgrove sounded strong, clear, and well-matched as the disciples.  Bass Dana Whiteside was a resonant and authoritative Jesus, expressing just a touch of exasperation with his dense followers.  Soprano Lisa Lynch delivered the narration with a pure, consistent tone that was a little less audible over the orchestra than the others.

Harbison set Paul’s ringing affirmation of faith as a bold, striding chorus that appeared headed for a big Handelian finish on the words “honor and glory for ever and ever.”  Instead, in keeping with the mysterious character of the cantata, Harbison pulled back to a hushed, meditative close.

The warm applause for the composer onstage Friday night reflected not just the quality of the new work but the audience’s awareness of the decades-long creative relationship among Harbison, Hoose and the Cantata Singers, and Emmanuel Music under its late director Craig Smith.

Harbison wrote that The Supper at Emmaus, the first co-commission of the two organizations, grew out of long-ago discussions between the composer and Smith about a cantata on this text.  There was a feeling on Friday night not just of celebrating a new work by Boston’s most lauded composer, but of commemorating a vital current in the city’s musical life that has flowed for nearly half a century.

Looking over it all like a proud godfather was J.S. Bach, whose church cantatas form the core of both organizations’ repertoire, and whose superb Cantata 6, “Bleib bei uns, den es will Abend werden,” is the only one to address the Emmaus story, if only to use the “Abide with us” text as a jumping-off point for a poetic meditation on faith amid the “night” of spiritual emptiness and doubt.

The Cantata Singers were in their element in this cantata’s opening chorus, deeply expressive in the persistent two-note sighing phrases, accurate and unforced in the difficult entrances on high notes.  Conductor Hoose also drew forth a rich orchestral sound, resonant with low strings and organ, plangent with oboes and English horn.

The aria-with-obbligato “Hochgelobter Gottessohn” contrasted the uncommonly big, broad tone of Peggy Pearson’s English horn with the more delicate, forward-placed, and attractive alto of Jennifer Webb.

Another remarkable instrumental solo distinguished the chorale “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ.”  This movement in chorale-prelude style matched the soprano section singing just the chorale tune with cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer dancing all up and down his instrument, perhaps to represent “Thy divine Word, the bright light” that holds back the night of “these last, troubled times.”

Bass Mark Andrew Cleveland delivered the recitative “Es hat die Dunkelheit” with clarity and force, if a little less righteous wrath than the text seemed to call for.

In the aria “Jesu, lass uns auf dich sehen,” tenor Eric Perry, if not consistently audible through his whole range, nevertheless infused the movement’s moderate tempo with expressive energy and ringing high notes.

The rich, well tuned and balanced sound of the chorus in the closing hymn verse, “Beweis dein Macht,” made a satisfying conclusion to the cantata and the concert.

Opening the concert’s first and second halves, works by the Czech master Zelenka made it clear that the nation that gave the world cubism and Franz Kafka also produced a Baroque composer like no other.

Bristling with far-out modulations, following a curiously circular key scheme and ending in a hanging half-cadence, Zelenka’s Miserere of 1738 openly expressed the anxiety and doubt that were the subtext of the other works on the program.

Mixing musical elements that were ancient and modern in his time, Zekenka adapted a 100-year-old organ piece by Frescobaldi as one chorus, followed by an aria in his most spiky avant-garde style, bravely negotiated by the agile and sweet-toned soprano Karyl  Ryczek (who, judging from her name, may have a genetic advantage in this repertoire).

If less turbulent than the Miserere, Zelenka’s Holy Week choral motet “Recessit pastor noster” (Our Shepherd is gone) was full of musical metaphors of doubt and contradiction.  The chorus (and the orchestra doubling their parts) responded expertly to the music’s ever-changing needs, ebbing and flowing as one unit, then allowing this or that voice to emerge, and managing tricky harmonic shifts and the transitions between homophonic and contrapuntal textures.

In sum, this well-planned, season-closing program, with a distinguished world premiere at its center, offered a thought-provoking counterpoint to the exultation of Easter through events that happened, as Luke’s gospel says, “that same day.”

The 2014-15 season of the Cantata Singers will begin on November 8 with two Bach cantatas and the world premiere of a work by Elena Ruehr. cantatasingers.org.

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