The English poet John Keats said genius "reconciles opposites." Could you flip that around and say it also delights in paradoxes? That thought occurred to me in the middle of the Cantata Singers' concert in Jordan Hall on Friday night.
The concert opened with a work by a singular genius, J.S. Bach: "Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht" (BWV 105), written at the very beginning of his years in Leipzig. In the closing chorale of this masterpiece comes one of music's most incredible moments. To the comforting text of "Upon this wide earth/No one shall be lost/rather shall live forever," Bach writes a string accompaniment that is full of sliding half-steps and ends on a string of broken quarter notes, like a broken clock, or a failing heartbeat. While the words are about faith, the music is about doubt, dissolution, and death.
One doesn't pray in Jordan Hall, of course. Instead one applauds, and the performance was unquestionably skillful. Music director David Hoose conducts with deliberateness and clarity, and his 44 singers make a rich, beautifully blended sound. Too rich? Many Bach choirs nowadays prefer 16-20 singers for the cantatas, and in Jordan Hall, 44 voices sound like 100. The chorus, therefore, tended to wash over the 33-instrument orchestra, which plays with a lean period sound and style. The combined forces were thrilling, nevertheless, in the closing cantata, "O ewiges feuer" (BWV 34). Solo turns were taken by soprano Karyl Ryczek, altos Lynn Torgrove and Catherine Hedberg , tenor William Hite, and bass Dana Whiteside.
Between these bookends came Berkeley, Calif.-based composer Andrew Imbrie's "Adam," written for and premiered by the Cantata Singers in 1994, now getting only its second hearing anywhere. Setting five texts by anonymous English poets and five more by great Americans of the Transcendentalist era, "Adam" is less an organic whole than a set -- or rather two sets -- of beautiful choruses. Any one of them could stand on its own. Two in particular, "I Sing of a Maiden," and "Beat! Beat! Drums!" are masterpieces, in different styles and moods, that are somehow swallowed up in the vast whole.