Emmanuel Music program roves, smartly, from Mendelssohn to Harbison

October 19, 2014 at 1:13 pm

By Patrick C. Valentino

Ryan Turner conducted Emmanuel Music Friday night.

Friday night at the Longy School, Emmanuel Music presented a concert featuring music for string orchestra and voice. The ensemble may be best known for its cycles of Bach cantatas, yet the sensitive programming of artistic director Ryan Turner allowed the wide-ranging repertoire (Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and a new work by John Harbison) to contribute a cogent unity as well as revealing some fascinating interconnections along the way.

Entitled “Crossroads,” the concert’s nexus was composers who drew a decisive part of their style or approach from Bach, but the connections among the composers themselves were much more tangible. Mendelssohn and Wolf had studied Bach but also stood in opposition to each other; Stravinsky owed as much to Bach as Harbison to Stravinsky. In this sense his piece Crossroads, which gave the concert its name, seemed the evening’s locus.

Opening with Mendelssohn’s youthful Sinfonia No. 2 in D Major for Strings, it was apparent the conductor knew how each note should be cared for, and the orchestra provided a rich color palette. Turner led the chamber orchestra of 19 strings deftly and confidently, and they responded with the immediacy and dynamism possible only with a small group.

The only downside to this level of careful execution was that, as in the second movement’s bittersweet Andante, the result can be more glassy than warm. In sum, the Mendelssohn was thoughtfully performed and served as a fitting introduction to the evening.

The Wolf Mörike-Lieder that followed, featuring mezzo Krista River. The orchestral arrangement of Patrick Castillo, started out with a bit of the steely perfection of the Mendelssohn, but quickly attained more human shading. A high point came early when, in “Auf ein altes Bild,” the singer describes a painting with the Christ child playing with the tree of the cross.

Wolf’s Italian Serenade, which rounded out the first half, seemed on paper to be at a strange, central place in the program obviously chosen to be mirror-halves. But after the set of five Mörike-Lieder, its bouncy optimism and wit was a fine way to return to equilibrium.

John Harbison’s Crossroads for soprano, strings and oboe, opened the second half, with texts by former Poet Laureate Louise Glück. Harbison’s is self-evident music; the character is always definite, even when undefined. It earns its relevance with the quiet assurance of its own identity.

In three songs, “Twilight,” “Primavera,” and “Crossroads,” Glück paints scenarios that often rival Mörike in their unsettled nature or outright dismay. The music, however, is never completely given over to fatalism. In the first, the voice muses about the only slice of the day when one can think, and the oboe becomes that reverie; the harmonic lattice of springtime reminded one of Britten’s setting of Tennyson, and the final duo-soliloquy on death and the things of life, the singer and oboe meet face to face, as it were.

Throughout the work, the oboe is partner to the voice—first as psyche, then as companion, finally as a kind of welcome adversary. The music was given vivid life by soprano Kendra Colton, and the obbligato oboe was performed wonderfully by Peggy Pearson.

Stravinsky’s Concerto in D ended the evening, effectively looking back to the Mendelssohn that began it. While it didn’t seem the ideal repertoire for the ensemble, it was a fitting way to balance and close such a skillfully chosen and well-executed program.

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