Reviewing the Reviews of Verdi’s Stabat Mater performance

Our performance of Verdi’s Stabat Mater last weekend was just about everything I hoped for.

As an individual, I fought off a lingering cold to deliver (almost) all my singing with the clarity and precision I was searching for.  What held me from an A+ performance were a couple voice cracks and a few breaths I had to steal during long, slow phrases.  I felt like I told the story I wanted to tell, from the misery of the opening note, to the terror of seeing a tortured son, to the hushed whispers honoring his desolation, to the privilege of standing by the mother, and finishing with the prayer for ascension to glory.

As a chorus, we had a strong connection with Maestro Tovey, with the orchestra, with each other, and with the emotional subtext of the music.  We missed a few things, certainly: we basses never made it back to the full supported sound we achieved in rehearsals for our exposed passage, and I was disappointed the chorus didn’t successfully pull back at the beginning of the big finale, to make it more special.  Nevertheless, we created some indisputably magical moments.

If you haven’t heard the performance, it is streaming at WGBH (starting at 15:30) where it should remain available until July 2016.

Aaron Keebaugh, of the Boston Classical Review had a very positive review:

To capture the emotion of this most poignant of texts, the singers lofted their lines with supple blend and pristine diction.

A few isolated phrases in the beginning of the work suffered from some untidy attacks, but as the piece progressed the singers’ confidence grew. “Vidit suum” was desolate, the chorus controlling the thin textures with delicacy to match the sweet melancholy of the verse.

Tovey coaxed weighty, determined playing from the orchestra to support the earth-shaking statements of the “Sancta Mater.” “Flammis ne urar succensus” exploded with power. But the most affecting moment came at the end where the phrases of “Paradisi gloria” seemed to float heavenward where they formed into chords of robust strength before tapering off to whispers for the final “Amen.”

It’s always nice when a reviewer validates what you felt on stage: the desolate vidit suum, the powerful moments, and the great crescendo at the end.  I concede Aaron’s point about a few untidy attacks at the beginning — we basses were not together in the first /kw/ of our Quae mœrebat entrance, though we did support it better than we had in some rehearsals.

Andrew Pincus of The Berkshire Eagle gives our Stabat Mater performance a brief mention in his write-up of the weekend as well:

John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, though perhaps too large for so intimate a piece, nevertheless sang it with opulence of sound and full devotional fervor.

While we’d accept the compliment, I think our roster of 120 singers is no different than the approach we’ve used for many similar pieces over the last several decades, so it’s more of a question of personal taste here.  Intimate 60-person choral pieces belong in Ozawa Hall or maybe back in Boston at Symphony Hall, where they won’t get buried by the Shed’s open architecture and the orchestra’s blazing passages.

Jeremy Eichler’s Boston Globe review only gives us a passing mention:

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang well, if with some tentativeness, in Verdi’s “Stabat Mater,” but the first half in truth belonged to the towering bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

He does compliment us later for our participation in the crowd scenes of Tosca.  In general, I’ve found Eichler to be not particularly kind to the chorus in his reviews, for whatever reason.  It may also be because in the Globe, he doesn’t have the space to devote to our blip on the program radar in an overview of the entire weekend.  I assume his reference to “tentativeness” was for the same “untidy attacks” that Keebaugh mentioned which I remember from the bass line.

Finally, John Ehrlich had wonderful things to say in his review for the Boston Music Intelligencer.  Here’s an excerpt regarding the Stabat Mater:

As with all of the late Verdi works, there was much to amaze the listener. […] The music is alternately anguished, terrifying, reflective, and ultimately noble, a masterful marriage of language and illustrative, emotional music. Tovey was alert to each twist and turn of the score, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus followed his every lead. The many exposed orchestral moments were, of course, elegantly essayed by the orchestra. Not surprisingly, the applause was a bit tepid at the music’s end. It is an unsettling work, to be sure. I wished the audience had accorded a bit more enthusiasm for this elegant performance.

While he didn’t specifically call out the chorus’s performance for the Stabat Mater, Ehrlich’s enthusiasm for the emotional roller coaster and the unsettling nature of the music is a clear indication that we succeeded.  We made that connection to the soul of the composer and distilled it for our audience to internalize.  A triumph indeed!

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