Woof!

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 13, 2008

Two concerts, obviously planned months ago, seemed timely anodynes for our months of political and economic anxieties. David Hoose’s Cantata Singers, after last year’s brilliant season devoted to Kurt Weill, are now focusing on another 20th-century master, Benjamin Britten. The season opener paired Britten’s delicate 1930 antiphonal Hymn to the Virgin (composed when he was 17) with the Boston premiere of British composer Nicholas Maw’s richly textured 1990 antiphonal choral setting of Edwin Muir’s poem “One Foot in Eden, Still I Stand.” The concert ended with Fauré’s restrained Requiem, with bass Mark Andrew Cleveland and soprano Megan Beltran, whose “Pie Jesu,” though vocally pure, was just a hair too loud for Fauré’s tender hit tune. (I couldn’t help thinking of this as a perfect memorial for Barack Obama’s grandmother.)

Britten’s 1963 Cantata misericordium might get done more if it had a less forbidding title. Composed for the centennial of the Red Cross, with a Latin text, it movingly dramatizes the story of the Good Samaritan (tenor Rockland Osgood) and his selfless care for a mugged Jew (baritone David Kravitz). In 20 minutes, it covers a wide emotional range, from moralizing choruses to the Samaritan’s lullaby, with string quartet, piano, and harp providing the special tincture. The performance was superb in every respect, and made one feel good about a new possibility for human generosity.

After 40 years, the irrepressible Joel Cohen has stepped down from directing the Boston Camerata, handing over the reins to his wife, Anne Azéma, the accomplished mezzo-soprano who looks like a Christmas angel. In “Land of Pure Delight: In Search of an American Soul,” Azéma put together an exuberant and touching anthology of 18th- and 19th-century songs about “our joys, our worries, our pains, and our anger.” The rangy selection encompassed vigorous marches (supplied by the Middlesex County Volunteers Fife and Drums), poignant laments (like soprano Lydia Brotherton’s heartbreaking “Johnny has gone for a soldier”), celebrations of liberty, and at the end a communal cotillion in the basement of Cambridge’s First Church (where the acoustics are surely less muddy than in the church itself). The expressive ensemble also included bass-baritone Donald Wilkinson, tenors Daniel Hershey and Jason McStoots, fiddler extraordinaire Shira Kammen, flutist/guitarist Jesse Lepkoff, and cellist Reimar Seidler. As Azéma points out, these composed songs are shot through “with the ethos of folksong and oral tradition.” Unacademic, non-liturgical, the insinuating modal harmonies in even the jolliest pieces have a tinge of melancholy — a surprising, poignant aspect of the American character.

Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann may be, after Bizet’s Carmen, the second greatest French opera. The seductive “Barcarolle,” the Doll Song, the Diamond Aria, and Antonia’s exquisite “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” (“The turtledove has flown away”) are among the best loved vocal selections in all opera. But productions are tricky, partly because Hoffmann’s three tales have elements of wild fantasy (most dazzlingly realized in the 1951 Powell/Pressberger film), partly because the major roles are so challenging (best when all the heroines and all the villains are each played by a single singer), and partly because Offenbach died before the premiere and the score has been relentlessly mutilated and rearranged.

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