Back in the late 1980s, cellist Daniel Ryan and flutist Suzanne Stumpf were touring in Europe, often performing in buildings whose history and architecture resonated powerfully with the music they were presenting. They returned to Boston inspired to seek out the equivalent local architectural gems that date back to the era of the Baroque and classical composers central to their repertoire. Once they found them, they established a chamber troupe to fill them with music — Musicians of the Old Post Road — named after the postal route that first linked the cities of Boston and New York.
Twenty-five years later, the ensemble has a lot to show for itself, including a host of recordings and regional premieres to its credit, and a thoughtfully curated concert series that brings together early music with early architecture. For its silver anniversary the group is, appropriately enough, celebrating with a season of American early music.
The season’s third program, performed on Saturday in Old South Church, took that theme in a particularly intriguing direction, with a focus on the Moravian immigrants who left Europe in the early 1700s and established communities in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. They brought with them not only their own music but also a set of very high standards for communal musical literacy and participation. In their settlements, as Ryan put it in his spoken introduction, there was no distinction between amateur and professional performers.
Musicians of the Old Post Road
In keeping with this approach, many of the sacred vocal works that formed the center of Saturday’s program were notable not for flashy or virtuosic ornamentation but for their impeccably solid craftsmanship and straightforward expressive directness. Johann Christian Geisler’s “Lobe den Herrn” was case in point, with Saturday’s chamber ensemble deftly embroidering the elegant singing of Kathryn Mueller and Kathryn McKellar (filling in for an indisposed Kristen Watson). Most vocal texts were in German, with the exception of John Antes’s “Go, Congregation,” an English-language aria setting that was strikingly performed on Saturday, with Mueller’s boldly enunciated singing supported by sinuous, richly articulated playing from the chamber ensemble.
Among the works preserved in the Moravian archives are apparently copies of music by European composers, an especially relevant fact in cases where the original manuscripts have been lost. The Old Post players wisely chose to open the afternoon with one of these cases, J.C.F. Bach’s brilliantly textured Sinfonia in D Minor, which here received the kind of revealing account that made you marvel at the fact that this music had been saved from oblivion.
If a few selections were less distinctive as concert works, they nonetheless made clear the honored place this art form held in these early Moravian settlements as a kind of spiritual and domestic gebrauchsmusik, intimately tied to the rhythms of communal life. In addition to Stumpf and Ryan, Saturday’s instrumentalists included Sarah Darling and Jesse Irons (violins), Marcia Cassidy (viola), and Michael Bahmann (harpsichord). Performances exuded zest, polish, and abundant care.