The Cantata Singers have punnily titled their 43d season "Bach and Forth." At Friday night's concert in Jordan Hall, the Bach component was taken care of by a cantata (BWV 101) and an orchestral suite (BWV 1066). The forth was devoted to two works by John Harbison which bookended the program: "The Flight Into Egypt" and "But Mary Stood."
Over the years, Harbison has enjoyed a close relationship to this venerable chorus. He once served as its music director , and both of the pieces on Friday's program were written as Cantata Singers commissions.
Led by music director David Hoose , the program opened with "The Flight Into Egypt," a 1986 commission that won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. It is a somber and beautiful setting of biblical verses from Matthew, opening with a plaintive oboe solo that contains the musical DNA for the entire 12-minute piece. Harbison deploys the resources of both chorus and chamber orchestra with imagination and restraint: there are darkly chattering trombones, a stately organ solo, and an alluring ghostly choral fugue built around the words "He shall be called a Nazarene." The chorus sounded excellent. Janet Brown and Sanford Sylvan were the fine soloists, both marvelously pure-toned and eloquent.
"But Mary Stood" was written in 2005 and premiered by the Cantata Singers in a chamber version last year. Friday was the first performance of the enlarged string orchestra version. The work opens with a finely wrought instrumental prelude, spiked with dissonance, but at the heart of the work are three biblical settings. Each is vividly characterized and heartfelt, and the program notes inform us that the first two texts were chosen to memorialize Harbison's mother-in-law and mother, respectively. The vocal writing was musically inventive and finely tuned to the meanings and implications of the text. Karyl Ryczek was the superb soprano soloist.
Between the Harbison works, Hoose led the two selections by Bach. There was plenty of distinguished choral singing and felicitous playing drawn from the orchestra, but both works also contained some curious lapses in clarity and orchestral balance.
In the cantata, alto Gloria Raymond and tenor Charles Blandy joined Brown and Sylvan as soloists.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.