Boston Globe, By David Weininger , October 1, 2015
‘One of the most thrilling things about the job for me is that every week I’m a student,” said Ryan Turner, a tenor and conductor, in a recent interview. He was describing one of his chief roles as artistic director of Emmanuel Music: leading one of Bach’s sacred cantatas every Sunday as part of the worship service at Emmanuel Church. Having taken over at Emmanuel in 2010, Turner said that he’s currently about two-thirds of the way through the roughly 200 surviving cantatas. (Many more are lost to history.)
“Every week I’m encountering a new cantata,” he continued. “That’s one of the most exciting things — always feeling like you’re learning.”
This regular liturgical contact with Bach — “our weekly dialogue,” Turner called it — isn’t just a distinguishing feature of Emmanuel; it was the group’s raison d’etre when it was founded by Craig Smith in 1970. As the ensemble grew over the decades into one of the city’s most distinguished, there were performances of the passions and masses, wide-ranging chamber series, and revivals of neglected operas by Handel, Schumann, and Schubert. But Bach was always at the core of its identity, as was Smith himself, a near-legend in the Boston music world during the nearly 40 years he led Emmanuel.
Which is why it’s significant that Turner has chosen to put Bach front and center of Emmanuel’s 2015-16 season, which opens on Saturday with “Bach Rearranged,” the first of three evening-length concerts. The focus simultaneously makes clear that Turner is keeping faith with organizational traditions and steering it on his own bearing. Saturday’s concert features Bach arrangements by the Swingle Singers and Stravinsky, and a three-violin concerto that is a parody of an earlier Bach work. In March the group will present a reconstruction of the now-lost “St. Mark Passion” by Turner and Harvard musicologist Christoph Wolff. And in April it will pair one of Bach’s secular cantatas, “The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan,” with Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” in a collaboration with Urbanity Dance.
All sorts of cross-relations are present in the season. In the collaboration with Urbanity Dance you could perhaps see an echo of Emmanuel’s deep relationship with choreographer Mark Morris during the Smith era, whereas the “St. Mark Passion,” which Turner called “a big hole in our repertoire,” shows that there are new realms to explore even in Bach.
“Bach is our vernacular,” Turner said. “It’s a real strength for us for obvious reasons. What we don’t often get to do is present Bach in a new light, which is the whole idea of this season.”
Given that emphasis, it’s surprising to hear from the conductor how far afield his plans for Emmanuel range. He shares Smith’s passion for neglected works by important composers, and mentioned in particular Hugo Wolf’s opera “Der Corregidor” as a candidate for concert performance. But he’s also interested in doing 20th- and 21st-century composers such as Adams and Glass, and he’d even like to forge relationships with young local composers, helping to midwife new cantatas from them.
“One of the strengths of Emmanuel Music is its broad range and versatility,” he explained. “Admittedly, it’s also a challenge for us — how do you market versatility and range? We’re not an early-music group, we’re not just a choral group. There’s such a wide span. But it’s also our strength, and that’s where we use Bach as a stepping-off point. And the possibilities are endless.”
It’s natural to wonder whether Turner, during his first five years at Emmanuel’s helm, felt himself in Smith’s shadow. He acknowledged that “anyone stepping into the role of taking over an organization that the only music director they’ve known is the founder, there are challenges associated with it.” Still, he added, “I feel like I was at an advantage being in the ensemble since 1997, and knowing the identity, the culture, the personality of the ensemble and knowing those places from which we could move forward.”
He also stressed the importance of two interim years immediately following Smith’s death, during which the group was steered by organist and conductor Michael Beattie and composer John Harbison. They made Turner feel as though he was getting “a blank slate” on which to create his own vision of the group.
“To me the brilliance of Craig was that he created an ensemble in which he trusted the people around him and enabled their artistry. So to me the important thing in moving forward is always about this incredible group of people around me. To me the identity of the group is the ensemble, and that’s Craig’s legacy. So I don’t necessarily think about it in terms of [being in his] shadow as much as enabling the artistry I was left with.”