Cantata Singers & Ensemble, David Hoose, Conductor: Vaughan Williams, Imbrie, Fine, and the Premiere of Wyner’s Give Thanks for All Things

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Ralph Vaughan Williams, C. 1920, Photo E. O. Hoppé.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, C. 1920, Photo E. O. Hoppé.

Cantata Singers & Ensemble
David Hoose, Music Director and Conductor
Jordan Hall, Saturday, November 6, 2010, 8:00 pm

Andrew Imbrie (1921-2007)
On the Beach at Night (1949)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Flos Campi (1925)
featuring William Frampton, viola

Sicut Lilium in spinas – Lento
Jam enim hiems transiit – Andante con
Quaesivi quem diligit anima mea –
Lento, Allegro moderato
En lectulum Salomonis – Moderato alla
Revertere, revertere Sulamitis! – Andante
quasi lento
Pone me ut signaculum – Moderato

Yehudi Wyner (b.1929)
Give Thanks for All Things (2010: World Premiere)*

Dear Lord, be good to me (I)
Give thanks for all things
We well know that death shall come
Dear Lord, be good to me (II)
Dirge for two veterans
Dear Lord, be good to me (III)
Psalms (reprise)

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings (1944)
featuring Peggy Pearson, oboe

Rondo Pastorale – Allegro moderato
Minuet and Musette – Allegro moderato
Finale (Scherzo) – Presto, doppio più lento,

Irving Fine (1914-1962)
The Choral New Yorker (1944); orchestrated by David Hoose

Hen Party – Prologue
Caroline Million – Scherzo
Pianola D’Amore – Concertante
Design for October – Epilogue

*World Premiere (A Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA commission)

For my part I could not be more pleased that the Cantata Singers, following their usual custom, have devoted this season preponderantly to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Sir Colin Davis’ powerful rendition of his Sixth Symphony with the BSO in 2007 was memorable, but not nearly enough to counterbalance the neglect Vaughan Williams’ music currently suffers in the United States. In Boston, there is bound to be the odd choral work cropping up in one church or another or on the programs of the many secular choral groups in the area, but the Cantata Singer’s focus on Vaughan Williams in their 2010-11 season is none the less welcome.

Vaughan Williams easily assumed Elgar’s mantle on that composer’s death in 1934. His attraction to English folk traditions was more overt than Elgar’s, and in compositions of all kinds, in his writings, and in his public lectures, he represented Englishness in music as steadfastly as his predecessor. Moreover his range of expression and of the many types of music he adopted — vocal and instrumental solo, chamber music, choral, dramatic, symphonic — also assisted him in gaining a pre-eminence, which he retained, as musical fashions came and went under his impressively English nose. During the Second World War, with his love of the countryside and its music, he became a fitting spokesman for English values. Given that solo, much chamber music, and full-scale symphonic works are beyond the reach of the Cantata Singers, their season will necessarily focus on particular segments of Vaughan Williams’ production. Their principle also is to present the central composer’s work in the context of works by other composers which speak to the composer’s work in an enlightening, and not in any obvious, superfical way. In this program works by three important American composers, Irving Fine, Andrew Imbrie, and Yehudi Wyner, create a stimulating, unconventional context for Vaughan Williams’ cantata, Flos Campi, and his Oboe Concerto. In fact, the real centerpiece of this program was the world premiere of a major new work by Yehudi Wyner, his cantata, Give Thanks for All Things.

There were connections among these composers as well. Andrew Imbrie and Yehudi Wyner were both Fellows of the American Academy in Rome — an important influence on their development — and Wyner and Fine were both members of the distinguished music faculty at Brandeis University. All of them, especially Wyner, have a fine sense of language, especially English, which compliments Vaughan Williams’ own gifts.

The evening began with Andrew Imbrie’s powerful and atmospheric setting of Walt Whitman’s On the Beach at Night, which Vaughan Williams also set in his “Sea” Symphony. Within the simple three-part structure of the work, the energy of the fast central section seems latent in the suggestive slow opening section. Once this energy has been spent, the slow concluding section brings us back to a reflective state of mind. The rich, sonorous quality of the Cantata Singers’ orchestra and chorus served the music well, and they and their leader, David Hoose, were alert and nimble in the complex textures of the second section. They and Mr. Hoose deserve our gratitude for simply programming this rare work, which not available in a recording, and all the more for the committed, sensitive performance they gave it.

Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, a Suite for Solo Viola, Mixed Chorus and Small Orchestra, is more unusual in concept than iwhat one actually hears, but none the less characteristic and original for that. Each of its six movements, which flow into one another without pause, is headed by phrases from the Song of Songs in the Latin Vulgate. These are not sung by the chorus, however, which is used instrumentally, much as Ravel did in his Daphnis et Chloé. Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel for three months in 1908, but few of his works actually suggest any specific influence. This is one of them. The solo viola leads the way through a maze of shifting moods, all suggesting a sort of interiorized sensuality. This introspective work is surely one of Vaughan Williams’ most beautiful, and it proved a natural for the Cantata Singers, with the mellow, well-knit sonorities they produce in Jordan Hall’s pleasing acoustics.

Readers who listened to Yehudi Wyner’s detailed discussion of his work, Give Thanks for All Things, in our recent podcast, in which he stresses his desire to avoid the portentousness and solemnity of the baroque-Victorian cantata tradition may have been expecting something lighter and more humorous than the substantial work he finally produced. There is plenty of joy and gratitude in it, but they are tempered by a pervasive awareness of the human condition, its difficulties and finitude. After casting around for a subject with some difficulty, Wyner settled on a group of unrelated texts which had appealed to him at one time or another over the years. When put together, they seemed free of the pious baggage of bygone generations, but they did keep coming back to the subject of death. The first of the eight movements is a setting of the grand laudatory psalms, nos. 148 and 150. Both this and the second movement, a setting of a brief traditional seamen’s prayer, are taken up again in considerably evolved form at the end as movements seven and eight. The prayer also appears in the middle of the cantata as the fifth movement. Wyner has an aversion to repetition; hence these recurrences are marvels of variation and thematic development — which doesn’t at all detract from their structural function. Richard Wilbur’s “Psalm” makes up the third movement and is followed by “We all know that death shall come…”, a mélange of precepts from the so-called Disticha Catonis (or simply “Cato” as the collection was known to the generations of schoolboys who learnt rudimentary Latin and morals from its pages), and speech from Act II, sc. 1 of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The sixth movement is a setting of “Dirge for Two Veterans” from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Beginning with Wilbur, who ends his poem with the lines:

Then in grave relief,
Praise too our sorrows on the
Cello of shared grief.

Wyner turns more and more towards death and mourning, and when, after the uncertainty of the seamen’s prayer, the psalms return, their joyful spirit is considerably tempered — and enriched. These reprises subtly suggest the varied ritornello of a baroque concerto grosso, as do the textures, but they are composed and written out with great care. Another result of this technique is the solid architecture of the work as a whole. Wyner has voiced his concerns about the unity of the work…but he needn’t worry about that.

If the cantata avoids pretension, it is still profound, lightened by a Mozartian poise of economy, compositional sophistication, and wit. In this wit, Wyner picks up where Stravinsky left off, looking back to Mozart and Haydn, although not to the latter’s overt musical jokes. And, as always, Wyner brings in jazz with a deftness only Stravinsky could match.

Give Thanks for All Things is as full of surprises as Wyner’s other works. It is replete with sudden turns, brass sforzandi, and unexpected assymetrical phrases and accents. In this way it is quite unclassical. Some premiere performances seem to spring full-grown from the conductor’s baton, but that is the exception rather than the rule. The warm, homogenized sound of the Cantata Singers was not entirely sympathetic to this often edgy and irregular work. Mr. Hoose also seemed to want it to fit into a classical mold, with balanced phrases and a temperate flow. Hence, textures, phrasing, and expression all seemed smoothed-over and over-polished. One of the traits that make Wyner’s music exceptional is the tension between his elegance and attention to detail as a composer and an impish delight in breaking the classical model this implies. It seems best for a performer always to follow the imp.

Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto of 1944 is a more animated piece, with the chamber orchestra evoking the English countryside and its music against an athletic solo part, played with impressive virtuosity by Peggy Pearson. While the orchestra clove to a homogeneous, lyrical mode, Pearson attacked the complex rhythms and often biting accents and colors of her part with control and energy.

The concert closed with David Hoose’s own brilliant orchestration of Irving Fine’s The Choral New Yorker, also composed in 1944. This was so convincing, that one would think the work cried out for it, although the music seems very much at home in the intimate choral “jam session” the piano original suggests. The satirical earlier movements of The Choral New Yorker, literally settings of poems Fine found in the magazine, seemed to trivialize the occasion somewhat, although the composer ends it with a more expansive movement, Design for October, which brought the evening to a rather tenebrous and autumnal conclusion. The chorus sang with spirit and precision, and I was intrigued to hear the work, which was new to me. Hoose’s orchestration made it more than clear where a good deal of Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style comes from. Still, it was a long evening, and I can’t help thinking that this pudding and savory diverted the Cantata Singers’ attention from the important and demanding premiered work.

About the author

The Editor

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts, an International Journal for the Arts and The Berkshire Review, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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