Barbara Castonguay

Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra’s “Stabat Mater”

By - Sep 22nd, 2010 02:53 pm

“Lamentation beneath the Cross,” Cranach the Elder, 1503

The Stabat Mater describes the death of Jesus through Mary’s experience. Serious stuff. Pergolesi’s setting of the prayer is a cornerstone of vocal chamber music and among the most revered of the many musical settings of the 1,000-year-old text. The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, soprano Amy Conn, mezzo Nicole Warner and conductor Richard Hynson performed it Sunday. They understood the emotional journey of Stabat Mater. Hynson’s subtle dynamics gave point to the key emotional events of the Crucifixion day. The MCO played simply, reverently, rightly.

Conn’s light, focused tone remains pure through the top register. Warner’s hearty mezzo brims with caramel and chocolate richness. Both are skilled musicians with a good sense of Baroque style, but they did not seem to be on the same emotional journey as the rest of the orchestra. Their performance was more like a reading of the work—capable, yet disconnected from the startling, emotional text.

Conn joined the MCO again for John Tavener’s Cantus Mysticus, a setting of Goethe exploring the idea of the Eternal Feminine through the Virgin Mary, the Hindi Maha Maya and the Buddhist Maha Prajavati. Tavener scored Cantus for B-flat clarinet, soprano, and strings. Slow, contemplative music contrasts with ecstatic explosions of light and color, rather in the way of Messiaen. Jazzy, free-form jazz passages representation of Divine Play. Conn shone in Cantus, as she blended into Tavener’s varied textures. Clarinetist William Helmers brought youthful guest to the free-form music.

Stravinsky based his Pulcinella Suite, drawn from music for a 1919 ballet, on what he believed to be several Pergolesi works (later research showed most of them to be mis-attributed). This piece begins Stravinsky’s Neoclassical period (perhaps more accurately described as his Neo-Baroque period). Pulcinella certainly looks backward. Hynson guided the orchestra through a seemingly flawless interpretation marked by impeccable phrasing and balance, superb and subtle brass playing, and virtuoso bass playing from the section and in the solo passages by Catherine McGinn.

This program, given at Calvary Church, opened the MCO season. Visit the orchestra’s website for information on the rest of the season.

0 thoughts on “Review: Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra’s “Stabat Mater””

  1. Anonymous says:

    The distinctive difference between the voices was very apparent – and not just a difference between mezzo-soprano and soprano. I’d like to hear Nicole Warner in a piece that called for more full bodied forte singing. Amy Conn’s voice was tailor made for the Tavener – a complete compliment to the clarinet.

    As to the emotional content in the Stabat Mater – It would be hard for any performers (and audience) to read the piece as it was written. It is rooted in an era of devote religious passion and for the most intense of religious observation. It calls upon the singer and listener to “Let me be wounded with his wounds, let me be inebriated by the cross and your sons blood.” 40 minutes of this sort of verse can seem out of place in a “concert” setting. As an artifact of a different place (and time), the emotional element is difficult to capture.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
    I’d also like to hear Warner in some bigger repertoire–she’s got some wonderful color and depth.
    I do have to disagree with you about the emotional content of the Stabat Mater. Following closely, understanding the words and the way that Pergolesi chose to set them to music, it seems almost impossible to not be emotionally invested in the work. “She saw her sweet son dying, forsaken, while He gave up his spirit”; “Make me feel the power of sorrow, so that I may grieve with you”; “Let me be wounded with his wounds, let me be inebriated by the cross and your Son’s blood….” This is the story of a woman watching her son die, and the desperate plea for eternal life that follows the witnessing of the event–It’s nothing BUT emotion! Just because it was written a long time ago doesn’t mean dust is collecting on it and we should present it like a museum piece.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I tend to agree with you in part. It is awkward as a museum piece, but also very difficult for both the audience and singers to capture its original intent. I’ll grant that the soloists could have worked harder to pull this off. I’m not certain I, as an audience member, could have received it as it was originally intended. Perhaps a venue like the St. Joseph’s Center chapel could also have helped.

  4. Anonymous says:

    We got somewhat of a test this weekend when the Rose Ensemble did a different version of the Stabat Mater with exactly the same text – at the St. Joseph’s Center chapel.
    Most of the Ensemble pieces were approached with two emotions – one, a search for beauty, and two, a determination to find the perfect blend of voices.
    There was a difference approach to the Stabat Mater. The perspective was one of reverence. This was a contrast to most of the evening. But it was not laden with the emotional content the words might call for. The piece was far shorter than Pergolesi as well – a once-through A Capella reading of the text. (With small harp bridge elements.) This allowed less time to press the emotional content.

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