Classical Concert Review: Cantata Singers Deliver the Goods, Passionately

Section by section, Cantata Singers & Ensemble are as good as choral groups get, which in this town of dozens of choruses says quite a lot.

Cantata Singers and Ensemble. At NEC’s Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, March 18.

By Susan Miron

Cantata Singers Conductor David Hoose

I have heard more than my share of choral concerts the past two years, and I’ve devised a system that explains why I show up to hear each group. Usually it’s because of the program they’re singing—it’s hard to miss a Mozart or Brahms Requiem. But more often it’s because I know that whatever they sing, it will be a great experience. No worry about weak sections, intonation, or pronunciation. Under their excellent music director and conductor David Hoose, Cantata Singers fits into this select category.

Yesterday’s program was not one I would have run out to hear, but from the moment the chorus began singing Brahms’s “Warum is das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen” Op. 74, No 1, I knew I was in for a treat. I hadn’t heard this ensemble in a while, and it was great to hear them again. They were as superb—in solos and in full ensemble—in this concert as they had been the several times I had last heard them.

The theme of this concert was Eastertide, and Mr. Hoose paired two rather obscure works about the Passion with two famous ones—Bach and Brahms. Brahms’s haunting motet “Warum is das Licht gegeben dem Mühselgen” (1877) is comprised of a group of texts put together by the composer himself shortly after finishing his calm and sunny Second Symphony. He admitted to an admirer that he was “a severely melancholic person . . . Black wings are constantly flapping above us.” Brahms promised to send this motet to him. “It casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones.” “Warum” (Why) is regrettably rarely performed but is a deeply moving work. (There are several performances on YouTube, but none as excellent as the Cantata Singers’.)

The “Via crusis—The 14 Stations of the Cross” by the devoutly Catholic Franz Liszt (1811–1886) is clearly dear to David Hoose’s heart—he not only conducted it beautifully but also orchestrated it (in 2003) quite effectively for harp, strings, organ, and celesta (a gong is used quite effectively). Thankfully, it turns out that the Liszt bicentennial, which just ended, hasn’t really finished up. Here was another huge surprise—a fabulous piece and a performance that I will not soon forget. Jesus was sung magisterially by bass Ron Williams. Two baritones, James Dargan (Pilate) and Matthew Stansfield, were very good, and the trio of two sopranos Farah Darliette Lewis, Lisa Lynch, and also (the great) Lynn Torgove were simply heavenly.

The stations of the cross were represented by fourteen short movements following an introduction. The movements leading up to the death of Jesus were lachrymose, then turned violent, revving up when the chorus and orchestra reached the words “Crucify him, crucify him!” As Jesus dies, the strings calm down and he sings to God, full of anguish leading to calm—Why hast thou forsaken me. . . Oh sadness, Oh heartfelt pain. . .” The last station is sung as if by a Greek chorus.The instruments follow—harp, celesta, and strings generating celestial music that anticipates the otherworldly sound of Gustav Holst. A performance to remember.

“Weissagung des Leidens und Sterbens Jesu Christi” by Christoph Demantius (1567–1643) is not a piece I would have run out to hear, but I am so glad that the Cantata Singers programmed—and sang—it. What a lovely discovery! Who knew of either this composer or his three movement reflection on the events of the Passion? Demantius lived in the generation between two far more famous German composers—Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594) and Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672)—in a period when Lutheran liturgical practice was shifting from Latin to German.

David Hoose conducting the Cantata Singers. Photo: Kathy Whittman

In his introduction to the program notes (written by Charles Husbands and John Harbison), Mr. Hoose offers cautionary remarks: “Little within these four achievements offers a balm, but each composers’ stance . . . allows the listener’s response a ferocious intensity perhaps less likely in the presence of more extravagant music.” The third part of Demantius’s motet, taken from Isaiah 53:4-12, ends quite peacefully, and, despite Hoose’s warning, I found it a balm for the soul.

Bach’s famous and much-loved “Christ lag in Todesbandedn,” BWV 4, ended this long program with energy and joyousness. It was a virtuoso display for the singers, particularly the bass soloist Mark Andrew Cleveland. Several verses featured sopranos and altos or tenors, the tenor section, and all of the chorus together, particularly joyous at the end, teaming up with the organ, rejoicing that Christ will “be our food and nourish the soul alone, faith will live in no other way. Hallelujah!” A happy ending provided by beautiful singing.

Other choruses and orchestras frequently use Cantata Singers members as soloists. Section by section, Cantata Singers & Ensemble cannot be beat. They are as good as choral groups get, which in this town of dozens of choruses, says quite a lot.

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