CAMBRIDGE -- Composers who double as writers served as the theme Sunday night for the Cantata Singers' chamber series. The concert, curated by pianist and interim music director Allison Voth, interspersed music and readings, the latter voiced by the director of the Boston University School of Theatre, Jim Petosa. But the influence of locale was as evident as that of words.
The countryside around England's Severn River inspired composer and poet Ivor Gurney ; both creative impulses hauntingly combined in the song "Severn Meadows, " sung with impeccable line and diction by Karyl Ryczek. Petosa's readings of Gurney's poems paid off handsomely as the World War I battlefield landscape "The Trees" set the stage for Gurney's terrific setting of "The Twa Corbies," an old Scots ballad in which two crows discuss the prospect of scavenging a knight's corpse. Baritone Dana Whiteside demonstrated both dynamic range and chilling theatrical focus.
The other three composers on the program intersected as Americans in Paris. Virgil Thomson's viper tongue was entertainingly channeled by Petosa in some of Thomson's memorable takedowns as music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune, but the songs showed another side. The old hymn tune "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," sung by Judith Hill , begins simply, but as the verses progress, the onetime organist of King's Chapel in Boston masterfully varies the accompaniment with increasing insouciance. Thomson played off that Protestant influence for a setting of a sly Kenneth Koch poem, "A Prayer to Saint Catherine," a pitch-perfect plea to divinely cure the singer's shyness, which Nathan Troup delivered with an endearing earnestness.
Two selections from the diaries of Ned Rorem demonstrated, not without charm, that for all his travels, the composer rarely ventured outside his own ego. As for the songs, it wasn't until "Life in a Love," with Whiteside and mezzo-soprano Jacque Wilson locked in passionate canons, that one felt the music, for all its polish, was telling us more about Robert Browning's text than about the composer.
In contrast, perennial expatriate Paul Bowles vanished behind the jazz and folk influences he wove into his own inimitable voice. Voth has long advocated this music, and her playing in settings of texts by Bowles's wife was luminous. Petosa's stunning reading from Bowles's novel "Let It Come Down" -- the protagonist witnesses, and fades into, a ritual dance of shocking intensity and violence -- showed the common thread between his writing and his composing, a faith in the overwhelming power of accurate, unembellished observation.