The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, under the direction of its artistic director Lorenzo Muti, joined forces with the Concert Singers of Cary, Lawrence Speakman, director, and four exceptional local soloists for an outstanding concert titled “Masterpieces of Religious Poetry.”

Specifically, the two poems we heard set to music were book ends of the experience of Mary as the mother of Jesus. The first one was Mary’s response to the news that she would bear the son of God; the Magnificat, from the first chapter of Luke, here set to music by J.S. Bach in 1723. The second poem was the 13th century meditation on Mary’s experience at the foot of the cross as her son was being crucified – the Stabat Mater, as set to music by Giovanni Bautista Pergolesi in 1636.

The soloists for the performance were soprano Andrea Edith Moore, alto Mary Gayle Greene, tenor Aaron Carlyle, and bass Donald Milholin; all familiar to Triangle audiences for their outstanding work in area concert and operatic performances.

The program began with the Stabat Mater, composed by Pergolesi in the last few weeks before he died of tuberculosis at the age of 26. He employed elements of the Baroque era which was in its infancy at this time. His Stabat Mater was innovative in the field of sacred music in the way it offers a very personal response to the religious experience. Though some criticized it for the operatic elements employed, it became very popular after Pergolesi’s death, as evidenced by the large number of copies found remaining in many sites yet today.

The opening verse, sung by the women of the Concert Singers of Cary, expresses Mary’s sorrow as she weeps at the foot of the cross. Through heart-rending suspensions and gentle string accompaniment, Pergolesi puts us in touch with Mary’s sorrow. The second stanza, sung by Moore, expands on the grief of the mother’s experience through an exquisite melody, sung with deeply-felt expression. For the third stanza, Moore was joined by Greene in a duet which further describes Mary’s suffering.

Each verse invites the listener to share the sorrow of the mother and entreats all witnesses in the end to share in the victory of Christ over death. Pergolesi’s music, performed with well-paced and balanced skill by the instrumental ensemble, choristers, and soloists, provided an emotionally charged lovely devotional experience.

After intermission we heard a performance of J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in D, S.243, composed in the full fruition of the Baroque era, some 87 years after Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. It opens with piccolo trumpets playing a joyous fanfare above the dancing orchestra, which includes flutes and oboes as well as tympani. After about 30 measures, the sopranos enter with a whirling melismatic treatment of the word “magnificat,” to be followed by altos and tenors and then basses. The orchestra was outstanding with precise entrances, superbly shaped phrasing, and ideally balanced voicing and ensemble. The trumpets were crisp and light and sparkled with the full orchestral sound.

The choir’s entrance not only matched the orchestra’s joyous ensemble but also added to it. The melismas were both crisp and smooth. The singers’ entrances, timing, and cut-offs were precise. The singing was paced by a sense of excitement and joy. I cannot recall having heard a performance that affected me like this. I felt fullness in my chest, and I wanted to get up and dance with abandon.

The second movement, “Et exultavit,” a solo, was sung by Greene. It continues the joy of the opening but in a less extroverted way. The supreme standards set in the opening were continued in every respect. The third movement, “Quia respexit” was rendered by Moore in her rich full-bodied voice, accompanied by one of Bach’s exquisite oboe obbligatos. A more gorgeous setting and rendition of music depicting the simple and humble virgin is unimaginable. The fourth movment, “Omnes generationes,” was sung by the choir with vigor and dignity. The bass solo, “Quia fecit,” sung by Milholin, was accompanied only by the continuo instruments. His deep, rich voice intoned Mary’s gratitude for the great things done for her. In No. 6, “Et misericordia,”  God’s mercy is portrayed by an alto and tenor duet accompanied by violins and flutes.

Movement no. 7, “Fecit potentium,” is another powerful chorus that harks back to the first movement including the marvelous trumpets. “Deposuit potentes” was sung by Carlyle and accompanied by violins. “Esurientes,” an alto solo accompanied by two flutes, was sung by Greene.

After two more glorious choruses, Bach concludes the Magnificat with a phenomenal “Gloria Patri.” Changing the time signature from common time to triple meter, the “Gloria Patri” rises from the depths, led by the bases, and then descends from above as though the angels were also joining in. This leads to the glorious music that began the piece which now ties it all together with a thrilling conclusion.

Throughout the performance, the highest standards were maintained. Speakman clearly had the choir prepared for a peak performance. Muti, maintained excellent tempi and phrasing; intonation and ensemble were well-balanced and blended, and the program was a thrill to hear. It was certainly one of the finest performances of this concert season in the Triangle.