Boston Symphony's "Stabat Mater": Dolorosa

Andris Nelsons conducts Rachel Willis-Sorensen, Violeta Urmana, Dmytro & Matthew Rose in "Stabat Mater"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

It's quite fitting that, as next Tuesday is Mardi Gras, the day before the beginning of Lent, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's program last night (with an encore performance set for tonight) consisted of Stabat Mater by Antonin Dvorak. It was also fitting that the program began with an homage to Andre Previn, composer, conductor and pianist, who died this past Thursday in his ninetieth year. As their lovely tribute to Previn, Andris Nelsons conducted the BSO in a performance of Elgar's “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations. It served both as a remembrance of Previn's career as well as an appropriate prelude to the Dvorak.

The Chorus & Soloists in "Stabat Mater"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

1875 was a prolific year for the composer, including his Fifth Symphony, E major string serenade, three major chamber pieces, a five act grand opera (Vanda), and the initial work on his Stabat Mater. It was also the year in which the composer and his wife Anna lost all three of their young children (including an infant daughter), which may well be reflected in this work. The piece received its first public performance in 1880 in Prague, just before Christmas, a strange date to choose for its world premiere given its clear Passiontide content. Based on a medieval liturgical text, a source used by other composers, it consists of ten movements with varying solos, duets and quartets, performed in this production by soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen (filling in for Kristine Opolais who recently withdrew from this commitment), mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana (who performed in last week's Suor Angelica as the Princess), tenor Dmytro Popov, and bass Matthew Rose (a last minute replacement for the ailing Ain Anger), with participation from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (under the directon of James Burton).

There are ten parts in this austere piece, beginning with a lengthy movement sung by a quartet and chorus depicting Christ's sorrowful mother standing at the foot of the cross (Stabat mater dolorosa). The second movement features the chorus at the crucifixion scene questioning who would not weep at such a scene. The next choral participation concerns one's personal role, standing alongside the mother. Then there is a bass solo with chorus grieving Christ's death with one's heart. The fifth movement is a Bach-like Baroque expression by the chorus begging to turn their hearts to Christ and the sorrowful mother. There follows a chorale-like hymn for tenor and male chorus at the foot of the bitter tree. The seventh part is a chorus lifting their hearts, while the eighth is a duet for soprano and tenor about love enduring pain. The penultimate movement is an aria for solo alto pleading for being shielded on the Day of Judgment; it was a chance for Urmana to shine (as she did a week ago in the orchestra's performance of Suor Angelica as the evil Princess). The last movement, sung by the quartet and chorus that their souls may be swiftly flying to heaven, ends quietly with the orchestra.

The Ovation for the BSO performance of "Stabat Mater"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

A ninety minute intermission-less production, the performance went by swiftly, a considerable achievement given that the work can often be performed too slowly. Conductor Andris Nelsons was in fine form, as was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (conducted by James Burton). They may not have equaled its premiere, played with an enlarged orchestra and almost a thousand voices in the chorus, but it was extraordinarily moving, whatever one's faith. The other soloists, Willis-Sorensen, Popov and Rose, were also a treat to hear, and it was a joy to hear Rose as he rose to the occasion with very short notice.
This was surely a moving experience for those whose religious beliefs are echoed in the piece, as well as on a purely secular musical level. In either case, it was an entirely appropriate musical choice in mood and musings with its gentle feeling of consolation.

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