In one sense the Cantata Singers can say "mission accomplished." They were among the pioneers in exploring the cantatas of J.S. Bach, works that were relatively neglected 40 years ago when the ensemble was founded. They made the first recordings of two of them; now of course most of the Bach cantatas have been recorded many times over. They are central to the repertory of choruses around the world, including several in Boston, and an important part of the musical experience of hosts of listeners.
In another sense, the mission of the Cantata Singers can never be accomplished. Focused work on Bach led the ensemble to expand its vision to perform music and texts from several centuries that engage the same kind of political, ethical, moral, and spiritual issues that Bach's works do. Cantata Singers concerts explore difficult questions without providing easy answers, and thereby make statements.
Last night's program featured two Bach cantatas, one about pride and humility; one about hypocrisy and humility. These were preceded by a vivid and unsettling setting of the tragic and vengeful Psalm 137 by Heinrich Schuetz ("By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept"), and the close of the program brought Arnold Schoenberg's visionary unaccompanied anthem from early in the 20th century, "Friede auf Erden" ("Peace on Earth").
Non-musical issues emerge most clearly in performances aiming for the highest musical standards. The choral singing under David Hoose last night was first rate in quality of sound, balance, intonation, ensemble, and involvement with text -- the shifty harmonies with which Bach depicts hypocrisy intensified the verbal drama. The instrumental playing in the cantatas was also superb. The orchestral soloists, among them organist Michael Beattie, string bass Susan Hagen, and oboists Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte, were all generously applauded.
The vocal soloists were just as committed but more variable in effect. The best were tenor William Hite, who has evolved into one of today's most eloquent Bach tenors; the direct and musicianly bass Mark Andrew Cleveland; and, new to these concerts, young Dana Whiteside, who boasts a warm and charismatic bass-baritone that is both impressive and expressive. The vibrant and voluptuous timbre of soprano Karyl Ryczek, so effective in contemporary music, sounds a little strange in Bach, skillful as she is. Veteran soprano Luellen Best was not consistent, but she brought a lovely soft timbre to her beautiful aria, a little like a baroque flute.
Schoenberg composed "Friede auf Erden" in 1907 in a late-romantic, highly chromatic style. The poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer begins with herald angels greeting shepherds with a promise of peace on earth, a promise that man fails to keep. Music and text nevertheless end with an ecstatic vision of a coming kingdom of righteousness. Hoose tends to program this piece in circumstances of international crisis, and it has become a signature piece for his singers. Under his direction, alternately angular and flowing, the performance traced an intense emotional journey.
Taking the big risk of undermining the effect, Hoose and the chorus responded to a standing ovation by repeating the work; almost no one left, and the second performance reached an apocalyptic intensity.