An indelible image from Saturday’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert was that of mezzo soprano Mary Nessinger, shouting through a megaphone some wisdom from St. Francis about perfect joy.
Nessinger was performing “Lives of the Saints,” an extended cantata written for her by Lee Hyla, who chairs the composition department at New England Conservatory. “Lives of the Saints” was the major work on BMOP’s eighth annual “Boston Connection” concert, showcasing its connection with NEC.
In the gripping “Lives,” Hyla has set texts from hagiographies of Francis and other saints, as well as from Dante. Hyla has written that he intended “Lives” as a set of character studies rather than a “meditation on saintliness.”
But that seems too modest a description of a work of such fierce musical and spiritual imagination.
For what Hyla seems to illuminate by conjuring the words of Francis, Jerome, Lawrence, and Teresa is the animating ecstasy of their devotion to God. Sometimes this means the quiet halo of sound that surrounds Teresa’s lecture on spiritual rapture.
Elsewhere it takes the form of the ferocious volley of sound that accompanies Jerome’s description of his torments in the desert, a reminder that a thin line separates ecstasy and delirium.
Hyla accomplishes all this by throwing at the listener a variety of colors, textures, and rhythmic impulses that change so quickly as to be hard to take in at one go.
And Nessinger brought both wonderful singing and a sense of the theatrical impulses that underlie the piece. She was, in effect, the constant barometer of the work’s turbulent emotional landscape.