Every half century or so some Boston presenter rescues Dvořák’s extravagant Latin triumph of lamentation from obscurity. The Stabat Mater made its first appearance here in 1885 when B. J. Lang conducted it with the Cecilia Society in the old Boston Music Hall. The BSO had previously played the work in a runout to Louisville in 1891 and in Symphony Hall under Seiji Ozawa in 1980. Dvořák’s personal connection with Boston began in 1892, when the composer conducted his own 14-minute dramatic overture Husitská at the first concert of Cecilia’s 18th season. The Boston Evening Transcript wrote:
Requiem for Wage Earners Decidedly More Feast Than Famine. . . . Dvořák’s first concert in Boston was for wage earners alone, and they filled the Music Hall from floor to upper balcony. … It would be superfluous to say the audience was in its appearance a credit to Boston. . . . The wage earner of today is the wage payer of tomorrow. [One writer rued that although too poor to attend the regular concert, he was, nevertheless, too well off to be considered a wage earner.] Wage earners’ tickets were 15 and 25 cents ($4 – $7 today!) and were issued to employers [for distribution] to those earning $15 ($400 today) a week or less. … Of the production nothing but praise can be said . . . Antonin Dvořák is a lion and Boston’s musical public has bowed to him as a man.
Last night’s BSO program included two essays about the composer and the work; the first, conventionally standing alone, came from Mark Mandel. Then Hugh Macdonald interleaved his eminently readable comments (how often have we read of “chug-chug” accompaniments?) within the texts and translations of the ten sections. After an evocatively dolorous ppp orchestral opening with falling patterns redolent of weeping and of mysterious augury, the chorus enters calmly, intoning “Stabat Mater Dolorosa…” (the mother stood weeping). From the 106 members of the newly reconstituted Tanglewood Festival Chorus the sorrowful passion built to an almost martial declaration of mourning. Reaching massive fffs without shouting, the younger sounding, straighter-toned contingent distinguished itself, except for articulation of the words and some pitch uncertainty in the men.
A well-matched vocal quartet has its say as well in the long first section. Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen made clear, steady, and powerful statements of a grief in attractive and generous tones that could soar above the substantial forces. Matthew Rose took the bass role on short notice, evincing a thunderous, yet cantabile instrument. Though billing herself as a mezzo-soprano, Violeta Urmana produced wonderfully affecting true-contralto tones; she could embody the grieving mother’s desolation and loneliness like none other on the stage. Showing astonishing engagement and the least dependence on his score, tenor Dmytro Popov achieved gladiatorial heroics as he projected the words “…grieving has been pierced by the sword” (…dolentem pertransvit gladius.) What a satisfying sound-saber of an instrument this man possesses.
Over the course of the 90-minute concert, Andris Nelsons drew fire, sympathy, and unabashedly deep feelings from the orchestra and the singers. Methinks this Stabat Mater will long linger in the hearts of those of us privileged to hear it on “one of those nights to remember.” One can’t, of course, sell this vaguely British choral property as top Dvořák, since it lacks the composer’s palpable Bohemian melodies and discloses little variety of form from section to section. Moreover, the repetitious setting of the Latin, albeit expressive, made the poem almost impossible to follow, at least on this night. And yet, and yet, an irresistible cumulative power develops during the long span of what one might regard as the then grief-stricken composer’s Kindertotenlieder.
Note to the BSO: Next time you do this piece, please borrow my harmonium. Dvořák had its distinctive nasal sounds in his head, rather than the smooth SH pipe organ.
In recognition of the death of André Previn, Nelsons began the concert with a disappointingly uninflected and dry run through Nimrod. Better to have dedicated Stabat Mater to him. The BSO’s tribute includes a link to Brian Bell’s last interview with Andre Previn HERE.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer