Cantata Singers explore immigration and spiritual themes

February 12, 2022 at 11:46 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Noah Horn conducted the Cantata Singers Friday night at First Church in Cambridge.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” reads the opening lines of the poem engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The words by Emma Lazarus reflect a national idealism that, at its best, offers solace for the millions who have sought refuge on American shores.

But Caroline Shaw sees the heartbreaking realities that belie its message. Reflecting on the current immigration and refugee crisis, she adapted the text for To the Hands, a cantata from 2016 with a powerful and timely theme.

The Cantata Singers found the score’s sense of tragedy as well as promise at the First Church in Cambridge Friday night, in a concert led by guest conductor Noah Horn.

A candidate in the ensemble’s season-long search for a new music director, tenor Horn is a generally versatile conductor, capable of drawing warm resonance from the singers. Yet while his specialty is Baroque repertoire (he has led historically informed performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor and Monteverdi’s Vespers with his own ensemble, Audivi), he displayed a greater feel for contemporary works Friday night.

In To the Hands, Shaw approaches global issues through her music with a rare combination of philosophical distance and moral purpose. Drawing inspiration from Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, a cycle of seven cantatas, her score is a wholly original conception of suffering and disaffection.

To the Hands unfolds in beautifully disjointed fashion as the singers are called upon to hum, toss their voices in glissandos, and chant repetitions of text over spare string accompaniment. Yet Horn’s reading teased the tender sonorities from the 19-minute score. The “Prelude,” featuring wordless choir, set a haunting tone, and the soft vocal blend captured the icy loneliness of “In Medio.”

The women singers brought greater dimension to “Her beacon-hand beckons,” Shaw’s riff on Lazarus’s poem. “Litany of the displaced,” where the singers utter statistics about refugee populations, made for a poignant and dizzying collage. All culminated in the distant yet hopeful strains of “I will hold you.”

The rest of the program explored a similar humanitarian message.

Handel’s Dixit Dominus is his earliest surviving score and displays the dramatic power that would come to define his oratorios. But Horn’s direction lacked tension, and the ensemble’s plush blend proved ill-fit to the opening chorus. Direction and momentum were also absent in other movements, and there were even a few flubbed entrances.

The solo passages, however, were superb. Countertenor Reginald Mobley lofted a pure-toned “Virgam virtutis.” Soprano Sherezade Panthaki brought radiant lyricism to “Tecum principium,” with cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and harpsichordist Horn providing supple continuo.

Other soloists drawn from the chorus’s ranks provided sensitive complement. Soprano Janet Ross joined Panthaki for a sweet, sorrowful “De torrente.” Sopranos Rachel Webb and Angie Grau brought out the delicacy of “Dominus a dextris,” with tenor Joshua Glassman, alto Jeannette Lee, and bass James Liu supplying sturdy counterweight.

Music by R. Nathaniel Dett and Brandon Waddles delivered poignant contrast.

Dett’s Listen to the Lambs with it spiritual style, calls upon listeners to consider the least among us. Friday’s performance sounded with urgency and purpose, with soprano Kay Patterson providing soulful highlight.

Waddles’s arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” heard in its world premiere, is an equally fervent take on a familiar hymn. Mobley sang with bluesy assurance, with Panthaki, situated behind the choir, offering bell-toned vocal embellishment. The composer gently supported the full ensemble at the piano, as the work built to a glorious conclusion.

The concert opened with Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, komm,” which Horn led with the warmth of friendly conversation. Bach’s music, perhaps, offers timeless comfort to the dispossessed.

Katherine Chan will lead the Cantata Singers in music by Macmillan, Schütz, Schein, Duruflé, Bach, and others 3 p.m. March 27 at the First Church in Cambridge.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment