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Choral Music Review

Choral Society of Durham Renders Impressive Dvořák Stabat Mater

Event  Information

Durham -- ( Sat., Feb. 17, 2018 )

Choral Society of Durham: Dvořák’s Stabat Mater
General Admission $22; Age 30 & Under $10; Students with ID $5 -- Duke University Chapel , (919) 560-2733 , http://www.choral-society.org/ -- 8:00 PM

February 17, 2018 - Durham, NC:

Antonín Dvořák's Stabat Mater was composed in 1876. The stimuli for the first version (seven movements, for soloists, chorus, and piano) likely included his reaction to the death of his daughter Josefa in 1875. Two years later, after the deaths of two more infants, he orchestrated and expanded it to ten movements. This is not so much a setting of the text of the medieval Marian devotion as it is an expression of the moods and visions of the poem. It combines elements of symphonic poem, German oratorio, and Italian opera, expanded to great length by repetition of words, phrases, and whole stanzas. In comparison, an average performance runs more than six times the length of Verdi's setting of the same text.

Hearing this work in Duke Chapel, performed by the Choral Society of Durham, was like being privy to a devout family's intimate grief process. There was sadness, yes, but there was also ample opportunity to express joy in life, and in a powerful conclusion in a major key there was the certainty of faith's fulfillment. How fitting that this performance should fall within the terrible shadow of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when most of the nation is mourning yet another senseless and inhumane act of violence. It seems we are becoming a nation of grief, not from external enemies but from internal madness.

In this performance, the Choral Society of Durham, orchestra, organist David Cole (in movement four), and soloists Nicole Franklin, soprano; Jami Rhodes, alto; Robert Bracy, tenor, and Eugene Galvin, bass, were all under the baton of Rodney Wynkoop.

In the first movement, the strings enter in ascending octaves and are topped off with the flutes followed by a descending pattern of ethereal beauty that seems to invite the listener to observe the grieving mother. The first theme is developed and built to an intense climax on a diminished seventh chord, a pattern that is repeated throughout the first movement. One of the elements of performance that has brought much acclaim to the CSD under the direction of Wynkoop is the smooth and balanced handling of dynamic crescendos and diminuendos, and it was outstanding here.

A contrasting second theme is introduced by the four soloists and developed in the same manner along symphonic sonata lines. Especially impressive was Bracy's powerful and rich tenor voice cutting through all that was going on in a dramatic and compelling manner.

The second movement featured the excellent quartet calling attention to the need for all to experience the sadness of Mary's suffering. Beginning with a haunting cor anglais solo, the soprano starts the ensemble.

In the third section, the chorus lays out in exquisite hymn tones the beauty of empathy – grieving with pity ("mitleid" in German). Here was the essence of choral singing ensemble – precise attacks and cutoffs, clear consonants, and perfect vowels.

The fourth movement, for bass solo and chorus, features the brass of the orchestra and the organ. It was beautifully done by Galvin and all the forces involved. This is one of the movements that is quite operatic in nature.

The next stanza was sung by the choir alone as movement five. It could be considered to address the guilt of survival. One of the lines is translated, "Let me share the torment."

The music of the sixth movement, a tenor solo with men's chorus, has characteristics of a folk tune, possibly even a nursery lullaby. The lyrical melody is repeated several times, alternating between the soloist and men's chorus. It develops into something rather ominous but then ends with a triumphant verse and a marching beat in the lower instruments.

Beginning with a warm string introduction, the seventh movement is a choral gem of the nth degree. Sung mostly with block chords, like a hymn, with occasional minimal orchestral enhancements, it appeals to "the most illustrious of virgins." It was exquisite.

The eighth movement, a soprano and tenor duet, finds Dvořák in a rather operatic frame of mind again. It was beautifully rendered by Franklin and Bracey.

The ninth movement is written for the alto. Rhodes sang with dramatic gravitas the great appeal for protection by the cross.

The tenth and last movement returns us to the opening theme, claiming "the glory of paradise," and ending with a marvelous fugal Amen. The ambiguous diminished seventh chord gives way to a powerful major cadence.

Antonín and Anna Dvořák later had and raised six healthy children.

The success of this Stabat Mater was the beginning of Dvořák's world-wide reputation as the greatest composer of his era. The experience of sharing in such a performance as this is one of the ways music enriches our lives and enables us to move forward through difficult times. The knowledgeable and sensitive interpretation by Dr. Wynkoop and the passionate performance by the dedicated musicians was something of a miracle. We were touched and moved and are grateful beyond words.