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BSO gives powerful performance of Stabat Mater

Written by  Marcia Gronewold Sly Monday, April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm

ORONO — The Bangor Symphony Orchestra ended its 2012-13 season with a stirring performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. The orchestra was joined by the University of Maine Singers, the Oratorio Society and soloists Natalee McReynolds, soprano; mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol; tenor Dustin Peterson; and Benjamin LeClair, bass, under the baton of BSO Music Director Lucas Richman.

A monumental, 80-minute work, Dvorak’s setting of the 13th century text, Stabat Mater Dolorosa (The sorrowful mother stood), was his first work on a religious theme. The poem, a meditation on Mary’s suffering as she witnessed her son Jesus’s crucifixion, expressed Dvorak’s grief s over the death of his infant daughter Josefa.

Tragically, by the time he completed the work, Dvorak’s two remaining children had also died. The composer’s sense of loss must have been overwhelming, yet his Stabat Mater is a vivid musical expression not only of sorrow but of a hopeful vision of paradise.

It was the Stabat Mater that made Dvorak famous outside his native Czechoslovakia. Numerous musical influences are heard in the piece — there are moments of Brahms, Wagner, Schubert, Brückner and even Dvorak’s contemporary, Mahler — all synthesized in Dvorak’s distinctive voice.

Maestro Richman led a measured, sure performance, with the orchestra and combined choruses setting the stage for the soloists. Written in 10 movements, the work’s extended first movement opens with pathos-filled orchestral themes that are then repeated by the chorus.

Tenor Dustin Peterson’s strong, clear entrance let us know that we were in good hands, which was confirmed as each of the other soloists sang. The movement’s climax was a thrilling fortissimo by the full ensemble.

In the rest of the piece, Dvorak uses varying combinations of voices and instruments as well as key signatures and meters. The second movement features the solo quartet, which on Sunday was fairly well matched. Only soprano Natalee McReynolds, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee with a shimmering, silvery voice, was occasionally overpowered by her colleagues.

In the third, fifth and seventh movements, the chorus — as usual, superbly prepared by U. Maine’s Dennis Cox and Ludlow Hallman — shares duties with the orchestra. Bass Benjamin LeClair was fully secure in the challenging fourth movement, handling the role’s extreme ranges with ease. Dustin Peterson shone in the sixth movement’s solo, which calls for pure, simple singing of a cantus firmus-like melody, contrasting with a dramatic middle section.

The eighth movement pairs the soprano and tenor in a quasi-canon that was sung with tenderness by McReynolds and Peterson. The Israeli mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol’s rich, dark voice — heard in the United States for the first time — was well suited to the ninth movement’s somber, march-like aria. Hopefully, this will not be the last time we hear her.

The last movement brought the entire ensemble together again, climaxing on the words “paradisi gloria” (the glory of paradise) before erupting into a fast, triumphant “Amen.” The final measures, with lines ascending as if toward heaven, were positively transcendent.

It’s a pity that this work is not heard more often in the United States, and even more unfortunate for us that the BSO performed it just once. Congratulations to all involved for a stunning season finale.

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