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Friday, August 16, 2013

Concert Review: The Mother Weeps, the Voices Soar

Rossini's Stabat Mater at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gianandrea Noseda made his Mostly Mozart debut with Rossini's Stabat Mater
When you think of the name Giaoachino Rossini, it is usually in connection with the 39 operas he wrote by the age of 37, and not with choral music. On Wednesday night, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra offered the second of two performances of the composer's Stabat Mater, one of the few products of the composer's long retirement. The concert was conducted by Festival newcomer Gianandrea Noseda.

The program, at the Festival's usual venue of Avery Fisher Hall, opened with an account of Beethoven's bucolic Second Symphony, an underrated work that stands at the end of that composer's so-called "early" period. Although chipper in tone, the Second contains hints of the thunder to come, with lomg slw pasages that build to explosions of rhythmic vigor. This performance was in every way better than last week's anemic Fifth, with the Festival Orchestra sounding revitalized under Mr. Noseda's leadership.

Stabat Mater had a troubled birth, with Rossini writing half of the work in 1832 and returning a decade later to complete the task. On the thin line between theater and religion, the results veer more towards the theatrical--but the power of the work's devout message comes through in any context. This is pure, fine Rossini, as the composer's dramatic setting retells the story of the weeping Virgin Mary, watching the crucifixion and death of her son Jesus Christ. 

Under Mr. Noseda's skilled leadership, this was a harrowing ride. The work opens with the doleful setting of the words "Stabat mater dolorosa", given grim, almost skeletal accompaniment and putting the low voices of the Concert Chorale of New York forward to tremendous effect. (Rossini was a man of the theater, but used the same effect in Old Testament-themed operas Ciro in Babilonia and Mosé en Egitto.) The entry of the four vocal soloists was a balm, with the singers emoting together over the text.

This Stabat Mater is constructed as ten short movements, with each section showcasing a different type of vocal arrangement. Some of them are purely operatic, like the long tenor solo "Cujus animam gementum" that allowed Gregory Kunde ample opportunity to display his slightly metallic, biting tenor. This vocal writing recalls Arnold's arias in William Tell. Mr. Kunde rose ably to the difficult, top-shelf notes in the climax of the work, opening up the full power of his voice to thrilling effect.

Rossini gloried in the sound of the female voice. Soprano Maria Agresta (these concerts mark her U.S. debut) soared above the stave, her voice weaving with mezzo Daniela Barcellona in the long vocal lines of "Qui homo est." "Pro peccatis sua gentis" moved the rich, slightly dry bass of Kyle Ketelsen to the forefront. The biggest surprise came when the orchestra went completely silent for two movements. In "Eja mater fons amoris," Rossini allowing the massed choral voices to make their own statement. "Quando corpus morietur" pitted the quartet of singers against the choris in a contemplation of death.

Even though the subject matter is absolutely serious, it is Rossini's skill as a craftsman and orchestrator that stays with the listener. The last lines of the poem lead into a glorious, complex fugue for the voices with ornamental, perfectly wrought counterpoint--something that you might not expect from the man who built his reptation on The Barber of Seville.

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