My favorite living oboist

The Boston Phoenix, 12/9/94
by Lloyd Schwartz

My favorite living oboist, Peggy Pearson, led off this season’s recital program at Emmanuel Church featuring music by two of Emmanuel’s great resident composers, J. S. Bach and John Harbison—who both seem to have written music directly for her. This quiet program was beautifully shaped, with transcriptions for oboe d’amore and strings of a difficult Bach organ trio sonata and the sublime Harpsichord Concerto in A major (BWV 1055), in which Pearson’s dark, otherworldly, almost disembodied tone seemed to be coming from behind a veil of strings. The slow movement—the oboe d’amore wreathing, writhing, and fainting in coils—is one of Bach’s great depictions of spiritual agony (and, of course, ecstasy).

An oboe-and-string-trio arrangement of Bach’s great organ chorale, “Nun komm der heiden Heiland,” preceded the first performances of two dramatically different responses to it: Martin Brody’s gnarled and unyielding Reliquary: Nun Komm (I wish Brody wouldn’t use phrases like “numinous fragments”) and Elizabeth Brown’s syncopated and dancing Pentimento.

Radiant soprano Jayne West joined Pearson and friends (what friends!—violinists Danielle Madden and Sarah Roth, violists Mary Ruth Ray and Betty Hauck, cellist Beth Pearson, Gregory Koeller on bass, Michael Beattie on harpsichord) in Bach’s brilliant cantata of low self-esteem, Nr. 84, Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (“I’m contented with my lot”), and the world premiere of John Harbison’s Bach-inspired Chorale Cantata, a haunting, unsettling work on the level of his Pulitzer-winning cantata, The Flight into Egypt.

Chorale Cantata begins with Pearson’s curlicuing oboe and a subtle reference to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” then moves through Martin Luther’s “De profundis” (“From deep despair I cry to you, Lord God”) to two spare, contrasting poems by Michael Fried (recitative and aria) about hopelessness (“My hand in the freezing water gropes for but fails to find a block of ice / On which to sign my name and the date and hour of my death”) and the faint possibility of hope (the tower of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette is “A dark beacon / In the darker night”). It ends with the intoning of a poignantly square and skewed Luther chorale. A lot of people came to Emmanuel Church to express their admiration for Pearson. They left more grateful than ever.