On Nov. 15, 1964, a new choral ensemble gave its first performance. The Cantata Singers took their name from the cantatas of J.S. Bach, and it was the ensemble’s mission to “perform and preserve” those works, which at the time were played far less often than today. And so three cantatas were presented under the direction of Leo Collins at that first concert: BWV 131 “Aus der Tiefen,” BWV 82 “Ich habe genug,” and BWV 72 “Alles nur nach Gottes Willen.”
Now a pillar of the Boston music scene, the Cantata Singers will perform those same three cantatas on Sept. 20, the first concert in the group’s 50th-anniversary season. The four-concert season, announced on Friday , shows the ensemble both revisiting its history and exploring new horizons.
“I think in lots of ways, this season reflects the roots very strongly, but also the dramatic ambitions and reach that the group has,” said David Hoose, who has been the Cantata Singers’ music director since 1984. “It is a kind of snapshot of the breadth and the range and the span of Cantata Singers — the span both as it looks back and as it looks forward.”
Although Bach was the group’s initial raison d’être, it has long since expanded its reach to contemporary music. Hoose pointed out that 13 pieces have been commissioned during his tenure, most with orchestra and soloists. One of the group’s strongest relationships is with John Harbison, who was its music director between 1969 and 1973. His 1986 piece “The Flight Into Egypt,” a Cantata Singers commission, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The final concert of the 2013-14 season features another new piece by Harbison, “The Supper at Emmaus,” which will be premiered alongside Bach’s Cantata BWV 6, “Bleib bei uns, den es will Abend werden,” a setting of the same text as in Harbison’s work. Music by the Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, a more recent Cantata Singers passion, fills out the May 9, 2014 program.
In between come two concerts, each composed of a single, large-scale work. On Dec. 7 the group will give its first-ever holiday concert, a performance of Monteverdi’s magisterial “Vespers of 1610,” which it last performed in 1992. And on Feb. 22, 2014, comes the first Cantata Singers performance of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” with longtime chorus member Mark Andrew Cleveland in the title role.
The Mendelssohn concert will be free, with support from the Free for All Concert Fund. It will be the first free public concert the group has given since its 1964 inaugural performance, another way in which past and present will meet during the season.
“Every thinking musical organization is very concerned about where the audiences are coming from. This is a small effort to reach out to as many people as possible — people that might not necessarily come to a concert of James MacMillan’s music or Marjorie Merryman’s music,” said Hoose, referring to two composers on the group’s most recent concert. “It’s a chance to show them how beautiful a detailed and, we hope, perceptive performance of ‘Elijah’ can be, and how profoundly life-changing that live concert experience can be.”
Subscriptions go on sale May 10, single tickets on Aug. 1.
The early music festival Aston Magna will begin its summer season June 13-15 exploring the chalumeau, an early clarinet, in music of the Baroque and Classical eras. Subsequent weekends will explore Bach’s six sonatas for violin and keyboard, with violinist Daniel Stepner, the festival’s director, and harpsichordist Peter Sykes (June 20-22); madrigals of Monteverdi and Giaches de Wert (July 4-6); and music from the library of Thomas Jefferson, who was a violinist and avid music collector (July 11-13). Each program will receive three performances: at Brandeis University in Waltham, in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York, and in Great Barrington. www.astonmagna.org
The Tokyo String Quartet is in the midst of its final tour, disbanding after 44 years that have seen a number of personnel and stylistic changes. It’s undisputed, though, that for most of those years it has been regarded as one of the world’s great ensembles. The Tokyo will make its final Boston appearance on Wednesday, at a small concert and reception at WGBH’s Fraser Performance Studio. (The concert will be recorded for a future NPR broadcast.) The quartet will play music of Haydn, Ravel, and Bartok. www.celebrityseries