Chan makes impressive showing in Cantata Singers’ poignant season finale

March 28, 2022 at 11:23 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Katherine Chan conducted the Cantata Singers Sunday afternoon at First Church in Cambridge.

The music of composers James Macmillan and Christopher Harris share a focus on spiritual matters. But their music explores conflicting views over difficult tragedies. Macmillan’s A Child’s Prayer, dedicated to the victims of the 1996 massacre at Scotland’s Dunblane Primary School, conveys eulogistic sorrow. Harris’s My Way Home laments the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 with a call for peace.

Taken together, these works reflect the inner struggle that results from lingering pain. That was the poignant theme explored by guest conductor Katherine Chan and the Cantata Singers in the ensemble’s final program of the season Sunday afternoon at First Church in Cambridge.

A finalist for the music director position, Chan has a keen ear for music such as this. Throughout, the Australian conductor led the scores with a smooth control that enabled the lines to flow with natural ease.

That’s a tall order for A Child’s Prayer, which unfolds in stuttering phrases. Beautifully serene, the harmonies relay a text that welcomes victims of violence into eternal light while simultaneously pondering the senselessness of it all. Chan’s direction lofted each phrase like quiet, but fervent, meditation.

My Way Home offered solace over its five-minute span. Bright arpeggios spread throughout the ensemble, framing jazz-tinged harmonies that bore the emotional immediacy of a gospel quartet. Leading with sweeping gestures, Chan revealed the work’s soulful humanity.

Other works were just as affecting. Jonathan Dove’s In Beauty May I Walk revels in the delight of everyday visions. Phrases gather in stinging dissonances that underscore an occasional soaring line. The Cantata Singers found its heart-warming reverence.

Yehuda Yannay’ s Le Campane di Leopardi tells of the terror of growing up in Soviet-controlled Romania. The eight-minute work sets a vivid scene of a child fearing that militants will invade his home during the night. The music is searching, with lines unfolding slowly over drones played on tuned wine glasses. The only peace comes through the nervous counting of bell tolls, which the singers rendered with haunting distance.

On Sunday, the last two works provided the soundtrack for theatrical spectacle. Olivia Link and Nia Sadler, both from Urbanity Dance, acted out the stories of the music through graceful balletic movements. The chorus also made effective use of the space, the singers spread about the stage in loose formations.

The singers found the emotional uplift of Jocelyn Hagen’s Hands, a wordless score brimming with sweeping melody. Soprano Angelica Grau and tenor Joseph Burke sang tenderly in an almost conversational mode, which flowered in the full ensemble.

Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi caritas et Amor tells of divine love and grace. Under Chan’s guide, gentle dissonances created more warmth than tension. She worked like a sculptor, crafting gleaming harmonies from each chant-like statement.

Music by Schein, Schütz, and Bach explored a similar balance between assurance and unease.

Schein’s Dennoch bleibe ich stets an dir relays the promise of divine consolation in face of adversity. The plush textures Chan drew from the ensemble realized all the motet’s contrapuntal splendor. So too did her reading of Schütz’s Selig sind die Toten, which tells of the heavenly promises of steadfast faith. Chan coaxed resonant lines that suggested joyful resolve.

Bach’s cantata Alles nur nach Gottes Willen wrestles with the belief that everything happens for a reason. The opening chorus coursed with palpable angst, reflecting the very limits of the thought.

The soloists captured the wayward tensions of such religious idealism. In “O selger Christ,” alto Elizabeth Eschen conveyed the difficulties over the acceptance of fate. Her clarion singing in “Mit allem, was ich hab und bin” expressed faithful tenacity as she cheerfully interacted with the dancers. Allyn McCourt’s powerful bass in “So glaube nun” made the firm belief in divine providence a comforting prospect. In “Mein Jesus will es tun,” Janet Ross’s pure-tone soprano captured child-like innocence.

Throughout, the orchestra painted a musical picture of inner turmoil. Strings played with rapt intensity while Peggy Pearson’s oboe solo offered momentary repose.

The struggle to accept things as they are ultimately found relief in the chorale “Was mein Gott will.” From the aisles of the sanctuary, the chorus sang with conviction, revealing that hope springs eternal.

The Cantata Singers Chamber Series will explore music by Argento, Walker, Larsen, Rorem, Britten, and others 8 p.m. April 8 at Follen Community Church.


Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chan makes impressive showing in Cantata Singers’ poignant season finale”

  1. Posted Apr 04, 2022 at 6:34 pm by Irl Smith

    This glowing review didn’t mention what were, for me, the two key elements of the program (this is not a criticism!).
    • The program included several works (the Macmillan, for one) which have tart harmonies with a well-measured amount of dissonance while remaining within the triadic universe.
    • And the chorus handled these works with solid musicianship and (almost uniformly) excellent tuning. “I could have taken dictation” (as, I believe, David Hoose once said), not something which can be taken for granted.

Leave a Comment