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Dvořák’s Kindertotenlieder?

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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 himThe BSO’s tribute includes a link to Brian Bell’s last interview with Andre Previn HERE.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Write your own review of last night’s Nimrod after listening to it below.

12 Comments »

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12 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Kinda cranky aren’t you? Obviously the Nimrod was a last minute addition to the concert. It was a gesture. The performance was simple and sincere and totally appropriate for the moment.

    It is also worth pointing out the following from the program insert:
    “The upcoming BSO concerts of March 14,15, and 16, featuring Renee Fleming in music from Richard Strauss’s opera “Capriccio,” music close to Sir Andre’s heart, will be dedicated to his memory.”

    Comment by Jim M — March 1, 2019 at 6:07 pm

  2. Me a crank? I hope not. Actually, I am quite a sap when it comes to emotion in music. Here’s a Nimrod that gets my tear ducts flowing.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 1, 2019 at 6:13 pm

  3. Since you mentioned the SH organ, it occurred to me that I haven’t seen the BSO organist James David Christie for as long as I can remember. Is he ok?

    Comment by Philip Johnson — March 1, 2019 at 9:26 pm

  4. Philip Johnson, you must not have been following the news over the past year. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see James David Christie performing with the BSO again.

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2018/08/23/colleges-cut-ties-with-acclaimed-boston-area-concert-organist-amid-sex-allegations/EB43oub6zLAYH7xzNnBGbN/story.html

    Comment by Stephen Owades — March 1, 2019 at 10:06 pm

  5. Wow, thank you for sharing that. This story obviously appeared in the Globe, but I follow BMInt regularly, and have not seen anything at all on this subject. Truly disgraceful.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — March 1, 2019 at 10:18 pm

  6. Dedicate a Christian devotional piece to Andre Previn? The offended would have sent fire down on the BSO.

    Comment by Al Miller — March 1, 2019 at 10:23 pm

  7. Dvorak’s Kindertotenlieder? Surely you jest or are being ironic or wishing Dvorak had done one too. I’m not aware of Dvorak’s thought on Mahler (Brahms did not like Tchaikovsky’s music). Ironically Andre Previn in his personal life was “not the man he should have been” but not as much of a REAL RODENT as Daniel Barenboim was with his wife Jacqueline du Pre whom he deserted, but perhaps it would have been better fitting for the BSO to do no memorial for Previn, even tho’ I did see him conduct the BSO and very well too. For the record, I attended Barenboim’s last concert with the Chicago Symphony, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and the Bruckner Ninth. Excellent job, but someone else (not me!) boo-ed him!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 2, 2019 at 11:02 am

  8. Now I feel like the cranky one, but a cultural institution like the BSO really ought to know that though André Previn did receive a KBE, since he was not a citizen of the UK or one of its commonwealths his name is not supposed to be styled as “Sir.”

    As for the Nimrod, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, neither is there anything particularly right with it. It feels more perfunctory than elegiac, and I think part of that is that I sense a slight urgency to the tempo where I would prefer it be, not so much relaxed but as a teacher used to say “on the back side of the beat.” The texture is the usual BSO blend, and I might like more nuance in that too, bringing out some inner lines, but as there was likely no more than a run-through for rehearsal, if that, I’m nitpicking.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — March 2, 2019 at 11:29 am

  9. I was alluding to the fact that the deaths of three of his children apparently inspired Dvorak’s Stabat Mater

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 2, 2019 at 12:04 pm

  10. Philip Johnson: Where did you get the idea that Nimrod is a “Christian devotional piece”? It was in fact the portrait of Elgar’s dear friend August Jaeger, cast as a reminiscence of their discussions of Beethoven’s slow movements. It’s a tribute to those pieces and, more importantly, a great tribute to a dear friendship. Elgar wrote a lot of Christian pieces but Nimrod isn’t one of them.

    Comment by Harold Stover — March 2, 2019 at 7:23 pm

  11. I just came home from Saturday evening’s performance of the program. I thought the performance of “Nimrod” was wonderful: enormous control of the form with both phrases and the movement well shaped. Clearly opinions can vary. The Stabat Mater was new to me–I don’t often listen to choral music–and I enjoyed it greatly.

    Comment by Julian Lander — March 2, 2019 at 10:42 pm

  12. Mr. Stover, I believe Mr. Miller was saying that the Stabat Mater was a Christian devotional piece. It is a liturgical sequence hymn.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — March 3, 2019 at 2:20 pm

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