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The Washington Choral Arts Society in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater

Thanks go to Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable Surprised by Beauty, from whom comes this review of The Washington Choral Arts Society's performance of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.

available at Amazon - Gewandhaus Quartett, BeethovenDvořák, Stabat Mater, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Sawallisch / Benacková, Wenkel, Dvorsky, Rootering
(released September 30, 1992)
The Washington Post advertisement for the 3:00 PM Palm Sunday concert at the Kennedy Center enticed us with “unforgettable melodies and lush orchestration” in Antonin Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, performed by the Choral Arts Society Choir and Orchestra, under conductor Norman Scribner. And that is what was delivered.

But is that what the music is about? This hour and a half work is one of the greatest of the many musical settings of the medieval poem depicting Mary’s pierced heart on Good Friday and the pleas of intercession made through it. Dealing with the death of his three children in less than two years, Dvořák drew upon a nearly unfathomable well of grief to compose this work in 1876-77. In the orchestral introduction, I missed the sense of stabbing pain and stunned grief with which this music should grab us. (Admittedly, my gold standard is the Wolfgang Sawallisch recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus on Supraphon.)

However, any lack of feeling fled upon the entry of the galvanized chorus, which immediately caught the emotional pitch of the work. In the first and longest movement, Scribner and forces captured the shock, horror, and nearly inexpressible grief of Mary at the foot of the cross. They recaptured it in the last movement, as well as the triumph of faith in the great concluding Amen.

The occasional problems came in the intervening eight movements. While the chorus excelled and sang with heart, the soloists, who are key in five of the eight middle movements, were having difficulty projecting the emotional content of the work. The notes were all there but, as I repeatedly asked myself, did they believe what they were singing? Did they mean it? To say the least, a sense of conviction is essential in a work like this. With the exception of the some of the gorgeous, committed singing by soprano Kelley Nassief, it did not convey. “Let me weep beside thee . . . Let me be wounded with his blows . . .” are lines that demand a great deal of expressivity. It is in the music, but it has to be performed. Getting the notes right is not enough.

Other Reviews:

Ronni Reich, Choral Arts Society (Washington Post, March 18)
I also have to wonder at the strategic error of placing an intermission after the fourth movement. How is one supposed to sustain the sense of elemental sorrow with a trip to the concession stand? Surely, it is not too much to ask an audience to sit for an hour and a half for this masterpiece.

Only a competent performance is needed to deliver the “unforgettable melodies and lush orchestration” promised by the advertisement. However, despite the tepid – and partial – standing ovation it received, this was not an unforgettable performance. The chorus deserved better.

In 1882, Leoš Janáček conducted the Stabat Mater in Brno. Try to imagine that event and perhaps you will know where and how this music should go. In the interim, try to find the 1982 Sawallisch-Czech Philharmic recording, made at a performance commemorating the Nazi massacre at Lidice. They believed. You can hear the difference.

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