According to longtime choir member Majie Zeller, David Hoose conducted more than 232 performances of 158 different programs during his 38 years as director (now emeritus) of the Cantata Singers. Last Saturday, in honor of this impressive legacy, the ensemble invited him back to conduct a concert of three major works of choral literature confronting – or at least touching on – the ever-current theme of war. The performance took place live at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge; but it was also the organization’s first live-streamed event, a feature this reviewer took advantage of while walking around southern Maine.
Farewell to arms, op. 9, by British composer Gerald Finzi (1901–1956), for solo tenor and a medium-sized string and wind ensemble opened the concert. Hoose’s well-written and informative notes describing the history of this work, as well as those of others on the concert, are well worth reading easily. In this case, he notes that 20 years passed between the creation and publication of this work, the sentiments of which were initially considered too anti-war to be published. As with most of Finzi’s work, the music is idyllic, almost understated, setting sound scenes of green fields after battle, and the guns now house gentle doves. Other than a few squabbling mice and a few aloof drums, the word painting is limited to the general air of pleasant peace, and Hoose has done a marvelous job of simply indulging in that atmosphere. Tenor William Hite’s warm, soft and almost effortless voice, reminiscent of a young Philip Langridge, was the perfect choice for this ‘melanbucolic’ piece of English pastoralism.
After Finzi came one of the last six mass settings by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Mass in tempo belli (Mass in time of war). Like Finzi, Haydn’s approach – typical of the late classical style – is simple, though still complex and multifaceted. In general, the gay texts are lively and the less gay texts less lively, although a few surprises, such as the remarkably modest “Osanna in excelsis”, provide welcome variety. The most expressive section of the work is a beautiful, almost tender staging of “Benedictus qui venit” for vocal quartet, in which Hite, with the agile soprano Karyl Ryczek, the solid alto Jennifer Webb and the slightly brittle baritone Mark Andrew Cleveland, provided a beautifully balanced and eloquent rendition. In all of this, Hoose brought out Haydn’s many subtle contrasts without betraying his essential pre-romantic restraint, even in the cheerful final section where the plea for peace becomes a celebration of what life would be like if we really had it.
As close as possible, the massif Dona nobis pacem, Finzi’s older compatriot, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), composed a mixture of Bible verses, poems by Walt Whitman, and a few moving lines by John Bright; there is nothing reserved in this audacious, sometimes bombastic work of powerful pacifism. Whitman’s poetry sets the tone for the first half with a spirited backdrop of “Beat!” To beat! Drums”, which has so much rage in the orchestral writing that any attempt at clear diction by the choir, even that performed at the Cantata Singers, is buried in the uproar. Without a copy of the text, the listener must glean meaning from the din of the music. A similar enunciative problem arises in “Dirge for Two Veterans” (Part 4) and in the last section of the work in which the brass choirs and the bursts of percussion again mask the biblical text, leaving the music to delirium. care to convey the atmosphere. None of this lack of choral clarity is the fault of the ensemble, but rather that of a composer who may have been too optimistic about the vocal/instrumental balance.
Fortunately, Vaughan Williams was also capable of subtlety, as demonstrated by his setting of Whitman’s “Reconciliation” (Part 3). Baritone Brian Church’s charming, slightly gritty tone gave a warm rendition of the soft music that offered a welcome break from the bombast. But the evening’s greatest stroke of expressive and interpretive mastery was, in many ways, the simplest: the work opens with a setting of “Agnus dei” in which the final “dona nobis pacem” is sung by a solo soprano with little accompaniment. This painfully enchanting phrase is repeated in the middle of the piece and at its end. And if the composer wanted this part to be a kind of seraph calling to the battlefields, no singer could have been better suited than soprano Felicity Salmon. Her strong, crystal-clear voice shone angelically through the instrumentation with just enough passion and innocence to walk the line between humanity and divinity. It’s an inspired gesture that Vaughan Williams chose to close the whole work with a final piece of quietly intense pleading for an end to all violence.
After the program, Zeller and a few others paid tribute to Hoose, who himself closed the evening with some fun anecdotes about his long career with this Boston ensemble. Hopefully he can add a few more to the 232 before retiring altogether.