SALEM — “Tracing a Line” was an innocent-looking title for the program offered Saturday in the Atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum. The line ran from a 17th-century German chorale through a Bach cantata to the Berg Violin Concerto. But PEM composer-in-residence Matthew Aucoin didn’t just trace the line, he explored it, in the tradition of the seafarers who founded the museum. And he extended it into the 21st century by incorporating the chorale into a startling work of his own that provided the magnificent climax to a magnificent evening.
Franz Joachim Burmeister’s text for the chorale, beginning with the words “Es ist genug” (“It is enough”), bespeaks an acceptance of death, but Johann Rudolph Ahle’s melody betrays doubts and fears as early as the unexpected D-sharp in the second measure. Bach appropriated the tune for the chorale of Cantata No. 60, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (“O Eternity, You Word of Thunder”). In 1935, Alban Berg slipped it into the final section of his Violin Concerto, which he wrote in memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, who, just 18, had died of polio earlier that year.
Aucoin (who is the son of Globe theater critic Don Aucoin) and the rest of his creative team — stage director Victoria Crutchfield and violinist Keir GoGwilt — wreathed these pieces with other spiritual journeys: George Herbert’s “Christmas,” John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 19” and “Good Friday. 1613. Riding Westward,” Samuel Beckett’s “Nacht und Träume” (“Night and Dreams”), Wallace Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” The orchestra for the Bach, 14 players, sat in a circle with the audience surrounding it; the larger Berg orchestra spread into the audience, dividing it into pie-shaped wedges and integrating musician with listener. The chorus began singing from one of the second-floor walkways before processing to the floor. Performers were spotlighted; ghostly shadows were cast on the wall. In his solo traversal of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, GoGwilt rotated to face different sections of the audience, picking up on the last words of “Good Friday,” which we’d just heard, “And I’ll turn my face.”
The musical performances, which Aucoin conducted, throbbed with energy and humanity. GoGwilt’s Chaconne was edgy, thrusting — vibrating Bach for a vibrating universe. The Berg, dissonantly angelic, enjoyed an unusual degree of spaciousness; one could make out every syllable of the conversation between soloist and orchestra. Rarely does 12-tone music sound so transcendent.
Aucoin’s piece could have been an afterthought, an indulgence. It was not: “This Same Light” illuminated what had preceded it. A kind of fantasy on the chorale tune, it began majestically, thickened in texture and intensity, then thinned out to a solo for GoGwilt up on the second floor before the cellos sang out the chorale’s second phrase and the violin ascended into the stratosphere. Bach and Berg would have had ample reason to nod approval.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.