When composer James Primosch received a commission from oboist Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers, he knew the resulting work would share a program with Bach cantatas, though he didn't know which ones. As it turned out, his "Matins" bridged the spiritual worlds inhabited by the cantatas performed on Friday almost as though it had been written to accompany them. It was all about faith's struggle to survive in a fallen world.
"Die Himmel erzaehlen die Ehre Gottes" ("The Heavens Declare the Glory of God," BWV 76) is one of Bach's larger and odder cantatas. Its celebratory opening chorus -- on the same text Haydn would set so memorably in "The Creation" -- proudly affirms God's presence in nature. But the mood darkens as various soloists warn of the dangers of idolatry and faithlessness. At its emotional center is an agitated tenor aria in which the Christian believer accepts the world's hatred (obsessively repeating the word "hate") and relinquishes all pleasure as the price of fidelity. The concluding chorale seems to reflect exhaustion rather than serenity.
In "Matins," which received its first performance, Primosch unites poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Mary Oliver. The result is a text that moves from Hopkins's intimations of God's presence in a broken world to Oliver's plainspoken affirmations of God's simple love. It's a fine piece, beginning with a series of delicately ambiguous chords high in the strings, Pearson's oboe twisting quizzically underneath. The work succeeds largely because of the variety of textures employed, from dense contrapuntal figures to a blaze of sound when dawn breaks at the end of Hopkins's poem. The music became less interesting when Oliver's prosaic text took over, but the oboe lines lent the music a welcome and crucial depth. Primosch showed a particular gift for choral writing: The a cappella parts were beautiful.
Only at the close of the program did spirituality come without cost. Bach's "Es wartet alles auf dich" ("These wait all upon Thee," BWV 187) is replete with images of God's abundant goodness and gifts, without the painful doubt of the first cantata. Though written on a smaller scale, the music is full of riches. The opening chorus features counterpoint that can stand with Bach's best, and the arias are intimate chamber music, full of exquisite duets for the singers and instrumentalists.
The chorus was its usual near-perfect self. How David Hoose and his singers continue to achieve this balance of warmth and precision is a happy mystery. Among the vocal soloists, alto Lynn Torgove stood out for the opulence of her voice, and soprano Karyl Ryczek and basses Mark Andrew Cleveland and Douglas Williams gave ringing conviction to their parts. First violinist Danielle Maddon and trumpeter Fred Holmgren made crucial contributions.
But the evening was in large measure a salute to Pearson, who played superbly throughout. She is as gifted and eloquent a musician as any in our midst. During his pre-concert talk, Primosch was asked "What's your take on the oboe?" The composer replied, "Well, when Peggy's playing it, it's fine," and smiled at the depth of the understatement.