Cantata Singers' season takes flight with 'Lindbergh'
STOW - The Cantata Singers strayed far from their usual home in Jordan Hall on Sunday afternoon, taking up residence in an aviation museum tucked rather curiously among apple orchards and scenic country roads about an hour's drive from Boston. The hook was the afternoon's main musical offering: the local premiere of Kurt Weill's radio cantata "The Lindbergh Flight," which takes as its subject Charles Lindbergh's historic 1927 transatlantic journey. The performance also marked the opening of the Cantata Singers' new season, admirably focused on the music of Weill.
For this benefit event, organizers urged guests to come wearing bomber jackets and flapper dresses. Very few actually took up the call to period attire, but before the concert began, a large group of chorus supporters, some with wine in hand, wandered through the extensive fleet of vintage aircrafts at the Collings Foundation Aviation Museum in Stow. Even a cursory walk in this gallery suggested a rather grim evolution in man's relationship to the skies, from the whimsical early flying machines to the menacing steel bombers of the sort used in World War II.
Against this backdrop, Lindbergh's celebrated flight seemed to occupy a brief moment of innocence, a time when crowds around the world could rally behind one man's triumphant voyage. Musically, too, "The Lindbergh Flight," written in 1928-9, captures a time of artistic possibility, when composers such as Weill were dreaming of new models of topical opera, and new means of delivering their art to the masses through emerging technologies such as radio.
Bertolt Brecht's text for the cantata, sung here in translation, relishes the gritty details of the flight. Lindbergh, cast as a tenor, lists his provisions ("hunting knives, a hatchet, a sawmill, a deflatable rubber boat") over a vaguely ominous musical figure that slithers through the winds and brass. Nature, too, is given its own voice in this struggle, with the choir singing to the pilot "I am the fog. . . . Who do you think you are?" and later personifying a snowstorm that labors to toss the plane into the sea. Lindbergh of course triumphs in the end, landing successfully near Paris. But it is a victory that Brecht views with a skeptical eye ("the possible" must be balanced with "the unattainable") and with a faint whiff of Marxism, as Lindbergh's victory is suddenly a collective triumph, and the three vocal soloists repeat the phrase "we have arisen."
Weill's music meanwhile brims with the imaginative richness of his "Mahagonny Songspiel," here distilled into wonderfully concise and distinctive episodes for orchestra, chorus, and three male soloists. The sounds of the nightclub mingle with sturdy symphonic traditions; fidgety counterpoint conveys the restlessness of the waiting crowds; a lonely Lindbergh talks poignantly to his motor over a bed of somber woodwind chords ("Are you cool enough? How do you feel?").
On Sunday, David Hoose led a surely paced and sharply drawn account, his combined forces sounding strong and well-prepared. As Lindbergh, William Hite sang with a sweet-toned tenor, though relying less on his printed score would have allowed him to inhabit his role more commandingly. David Kravitz excelled in the smaller baritone solos, and Mark Andrew Cleveland was a solid bass soloist.
The concert setting, with the performers surrounded by vintage aircraft, added a certain historical resonance, but it's a shame that a local premiere of this nature will not also be repeated in Boston. Surely this novel work would have tempted many listeners who could not make it out to Stow, or could not afford the $150 benefit ticket. The group's ambitious season continues on Nov. 9 with another local Weill premiere, "The Legend of the Dead Soldier," this time in Jordan Hall.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler @globe.com.