Cantata’s Approach: Twice is Nice

The Boston Globe, 5/15/07
by Jeremy Eichler

Ask any composer and they’ll tell you that getting a world premiere performance of a new work is a lot easier than getting a second airing of the same piece (which takes the same preparation, but comes with little of the prestige). The best scenario may be getting both the first and second performance on the same night, which allows the audience to really absorb what they’re hearing. That was the case with Stephen Hartke’s “Precepts,” an accomplished new work performed not once by twice by the Cantata Singers under David Hoose for their season-closing program on Friday night in Jordan Hall.

A co-commission with Winsor Music, “Precepts” is a setting of two biblical passages dealing with moral injunctions one in Latin from Deuteronomy, and one in English with selections from proverbs and Lamentations. Both movements are full of beautifully distinctive writing for chorus, solo oboe, and string orchestra. The first strikes a subdued tone, opening with the clipped yet poignant sighs of the violas and cellos who are quickly joined by a six-part chorus, singing in undulating lines with hazy yet pungent harmonies about paying the poor man his wages before sunset. The second movement — titled “Wisdom Cries Aloud in the Open Air” is tumultuous and almost wrathful as it personifies Wisdom as a figure preaching to the unhearing masses. At one point, she flatly declares that she will laugh at our doom.

Those inclined to see links with contemporary political affairs will find plenty of resonance in lines like “Stupid men hate knowledge” and “An ignorant ruler brings harm to his people,” though in a earlier interview with the Globe, Hartke cannily emphasized the more timeless aspects of his chosen text. None of this would mean much if the composer had not dreamed up riveting music for this second movement, full of emphatic, angular string lines and complex yet clear and urgent choral writing. The solo oboe, played superbly by Peggy Pearson, takes the role of a street-corner prophet, by turns pleading cajoling, and tartly heckling all who pass before her.

In keeping with this season’s running theme, the Cantata Singers paired the Hartke with lots of Bach, including the Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin (with Pearson and concertmaster Danielle Maddon); the cantata “Komm du Süsse Todesstunde” (BWV 161) and the “Ascension Oratorio” (BWV 11). The last of the three works was given a particularly rousing performance; mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg stood out among the soloists for her soulful singing. Hoose’s direction was vigorous and engaged. By the time the glorious trumpet-fortified chorale arrived at the concert’s close, he was nearly dancing on the stage.