Is it the journey, or the destination? John Harbison’s new cantata — premiered on Friday by the Cantata Singers and conductor David Hoose — is called “The Supper at Emmaus,” but the bulk of the action is on the road to Emmaus: Two disciples meet and walk with the risen Jesus, invite him to stay for dinner, and only recognize their fellow traveler as he breaks bread. Commissioned by the Singers and Emmanuel Music (who premiered the outer choral movements in March), the piece both marks an arrival — the Singers’ 50th season — and retraces what, in Harbison’s setting, proves a sometimes uneasy path.
“The Supper at Emmaus” bookends Harbison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Flight Into Egypt,” Cantata Singers’ first commission: Both take a normally festive observance (Christmas, Easter) and find anxiety lurking behind the celebration. A choral prologue sets the stage with escalating drama; the story itself — verbatim from Luke’s Gospel — hovers between a lesson and a stripped-down operatic scene. Syllabic, geometric narration (soprano Lisa Lynch) guides the disciples (mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove and tenor Jason Sobol, often joined in imitative counterpoint) and a declamatory, almost severe Jesus (bass Dana Whiteside). The disciples are tense, jumpy; their recounting of the Easter story has the heightened pitch and clipped impetus of breaking news.
The disciples’ invitation — “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is spent” — is the work’s center, an island of consonance and calm; elsewhere, the music is rhythmically fitful, dissonantly murky. The orchestration posits strings and double-reeds as contrasting versions of tonal wiriness. The storytelling is equally lean, keeping faith with the archaic gravity of the King James Bible. The choral epilogue is astringently joyful — austere harmonies in tripping triple-time rhythms — but ends with cloudy, disintegrating chorale.
Hoose framed the piece with two more installments of his ongoing and persuasive advocacy of Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka; the Miserere in C minor, alternating the most extravagant drama — crushes of dissonance, a densely florid turn for soprano soloist Karel Ryczek — with sober, old-fashioned formality; and “Recessit pastor noster,” a Good Friday motet basking in that older style’s restrained calm.
J. S. Bach’s own treatment of the Emmaus story, the cantata “Blein bei uns, denn es will Abend” (BWV 6), is somber, though more sumptuous than Harbison’s score: flowing arias for alto (Jennifer Webb) and tenor (Eric Perry), a brimstone recitative for bass (Mark-Andrew Cleveland), brilliant obbligato turns for Peggy Pearson, on English horn, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer. But, like Harbison, Bach focuses on the disciples’ entreaty; the tension between that desire to stay and the music’s inexorable flow is constant. The Emmaus story iself, in a way, might be an accidental allegory for music’s transience: in Luke’s telling, as soon as the disciples realize who their guest is, he vanishes.