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Voices from the past, and Weill's eye on the future

03.19.08
Jennifer Koh
The Boston Globe

On Sunday, the Cantata Singers continued their season long exploration of the music of Kurt Weill with a compare-and-contrast concert highlighting Weill's Teflon resistance to the weight of history. Instead of worrying over a place in the pantheon, Weill took pride in adapting his compositional personality to each successive Zeitgeist.

Weill's teacher, the Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni, was as restless as his pupil, but in true Romantic fashion, he turned inward rather than outward for innovation. Busoni's 1909 instrumental "Berceuse élégiaque," which opened the concert, strikingly realizes a funereal tableau. Deliberately murky orchestration - low flutes and clarinets in the winds, the strings perpetually muted - produced a gently undulating haze; the static harmonies and cloudy cast hinted at a hermetic, drawn-curtain Impressionism. Music Director David Hoose and the Ensemble recovered from a slightly restive opening to find the work's blurry, hushed implacability.

Weill's 1924 Violin Concerto, dating from his brief stint as an atonal modernist, was a complete contrast, all hard edges. With an orchestra of 10 winds, double basses, and percussion, Weill marries a Schoenbergian vocabulary to a Stravinskian instrumental sensibility. But in place of Neoclassicism or Romanticism are contemporary snapshots: A xylophone-spiked "Notturno" becomes a ragtime-infused night on the town, while the boisterously marching finale suddenly dissolves into an uncannily minimalistic bit of rocking machinery.

Hoose and the superb violinist Jennifer Koh fashioned a reading that was musically fiery while remaining emotionally cool and confident. Spinning off Weill's intricate solo passages with a consistently taut, gleaming tone and sharp focus, Koh's virtuosity appropriately suggested more technological mastery than melodramatic expression.

The second half brought Johannes Brahms's "Ein deutsches Requiem" in a magnificent, dignified performance, Hoose shaping the form with flexible breadth. Soprano soloist Jennifer Foster's ethereal tone lacked presence, but baritone Dana Whiteside offset a rigid vocal production with compelling style and drama. The chorus was in superb form, its precision and discipline generating considerable emotional power. The austere preaching of the second movement's "For all flesh is as grass" breaking like a wave into the triumphal fugue of "The ransomed of the Lord shall return" was enough to justify the afternoon.

But the connection to Weill? By contrast, Brahms was a composer steeped in history: The "Requiem" purposefully borrows Bach's fugues and Beethoven's escalating climaxes in its effort to render its vision of divine comfort universal and timeless. The group's generous performance ennobled the sentiment, but Weill's brash tabula rasa was a reminder that Brahms's idealism, however well-intentioned, was part of a societal worldview that ultimately led to the trenches of the Great War. For Weill, looking forward was automatically a better view than looking back.