Soloists, Houston Symphony bring quiet intensity to Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater”

Fri Sep 28, 2018 at 12:58 pm
By Steven Brown

Andres Orozco-Estrada conducted the Houston Symphony and Chorus in Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater” Thursday night at Jones Hall. Photo: Martin Sigmund

Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater offers a generous helping of eloquent lyricism. Yet the popularity of Dvořák’s symphonies and concertos has never transferred to his setting of the medieval tribute to the Virgin Mary. 

The Houston Symphony waited until 2000, 87 years after its founding, for its first performance of the piece. And the score sat on the shelf another 18 years before the orchestral finally returned to it Thursday night at Jones Hall. 

The Stabat Mater still gets little or no attention from orchestras or choral societies, at least in the United States. The likely reason is because the work unfolds over 80 minutes that are devoted almost entirely to meditative moods and moderate tempos. For many, that doesn’t add up to a particularly stirring experience, despite the music’s soulfulness. 

Even when the Latin text invites drama–by saying that Mary felt as if a sword had pierced her heart, or by invoking Judgment Day’s terrors–Dvořák largely plays down any passion. 

But Andres Orozco-Estrada, the Houston Symphony’s music director, has a penchant for Dvořák, as stirring performances of the Symphony No. 8, Te Deum and other works have shown. On Thursday, he brought out the Stabat Mater’s fervor and lyricism without getting lost in Dvořák’s introspection.

Flowing tempos helped Dvořák’s melodies come alive, be their moods plaintive or hopeful. Thanks to the orchestra’s gently throbbing chords, “Eja, Mater”–an expression of sympathy for Mary’s grief–was quiet but compelling.

In the opening movement, the Houston Symphony Chorus’s veiled tone, precise diction and smoothness showed that a hushed intensity can be just as effective as fortissimos. In the sopranos’ first moment in the spotlight, their sweetness signaled that Dvořák also had warmth in store. But when the music needed to swell, the chorus’ full-throated crescendos produced the sudden impact.

“Tui nati vulnerati” brought lilting, cozy aura–even though the text relates Jesus’s suffering—and the chorus’s grace let the warmth radiate. When a rare passage of agitation took over, the chorus’s bite put that across, too. And the group sang with vigor and ringing tone in the climactic “Amen.”

The soloists added their own impact. Soprano Lucy Crowe boasted a purity of sound that reached to her highest notes. Her singing helped the work’s climaxes gleam, and brought out the pensiveness of “Fac ut portem,” a duet paying homage to Jesus’ suffering.

Tenor Toby Spence’s balance of deftness and heft paid off in his part of that duet. And Spence lent both sweetness and conviction to “Fac me vere,” a solo whose euphonious melody exudes hopefulness even as the words describe Jesus’ agony.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang with even greater fullness and warmth than in her last appearance in Houston Grand Opera’s 2017 performances of Verdi’s Requiem. That was especially compelling as she began the quartet “Quis est homo,” a hymn of compassion built on one of the Stabat Mater’s most haunting melodies. Cooke later brought dignity and richness to the Baroque-tinged “Inflammatus,” a prayer for mercy on Judgment Day.

The solo quartet’s foundation came from bass Dashon Burton’s deep, dark tone. Burton may not boast the sheer power of some basses, but he brought ardor and urgency to the prayer “Fac ut ardeat.” And not many basses could match the deftness he brought to the more lyrical turns. 

The orchestra deserves special credit for playing that emulated the vocal finesse of the evening’s soloists. The woodwinds contributed eloquent solos, plus a couple of especially poetic clarinet duets. The brass provided a mellow, glowing backdrop for Crowe and Cook’s mini-duet within “Quis est homo,” conveying the expressive depths of the Stabat Mater.

The Stabat Mater will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Jones Hall.

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