Czech Philharmonic creates angelic atmosphere with Dvorak’s ‘Stabat Mater’

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Zdenek Chrapek/Courtesy

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For many artists, grief becomes the impetus for creative expression — especially in music.  Whether it is romantic heartbreak, depression or the loss of a loved one, emotion channeled through musical works can help to console us in our sadness. For Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, it was the death of his three children that ultimately inspired him to write the piece “Stabat Mater,” which was performed by the Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir with the support of Cal Performances last Sunday.

Dvorak’s work is based on the 13th-century Latin poem of the same name, usually attributed to the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi. It relates Mary’s anguish as she stands at Jesus’ cross, and it has been set to music by other composers such as Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini and Schubert, among others. “Stabat Mater” is one of Dvorak’s lesser-known works, and it was only played in Northridge and Berkeley during the Czech Philharmonic’s U.S. tour.  Founded in 1896, the philharmonic is reviving its reputation as one of the most acclaimed ensembles in the world under the baton of esteemed conductor Jiri Belohlavek and choirmaster Lukas Vasilek. In fact, Dvorak himself conducted the orchestra in its debut performance at the Rudolfinum in Prague. Sunday’s performance marked the orchestra and choir’s first show in Berkeley.

The concert was preceded by an event put on by the Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Cal Performances was one of four distinguished Bay Area arts institutions joining the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to present the institute, which brought together the nation’s top journalists and writers with aspiring young writers — the Rubin Institute Fellows. The weeklong occasion included keynote addresses, lectures, public performances, discussion panels and critical reviews. Sunday’s preconcert event was a panel discussion entitled “Criticism and Creativity” and was moderated by Tim Page, a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California. The discussion provided the perfect segue into the afternoon concert.

Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” is comprised of three overarching movements: Nos. 1-4 offer stoic, dirge-like music; Nos. 5-8 offer encouragement and relief, and Nos. 9-10 return thematically to the solemn grief of the opening movement. The first few moments of the work began with a breathy and light melody before building up into a tension-laden crescendo. While the choir’s sparkling vocals shone through in this first act, the spotlight was really on the orchestra, which outshone the choir’s voices with strong timpani rolls and intense brass sounds. Dvorak’s grand Wagnerian influences were evident throughout.

The score then took a turn for the unexpected with a waltz that seemed almost out of place for its lightheartedness. This interesting discrepancy was not the sole change in mood of the piece; this “Stabat Mater” included moments of seemingly blissful melodies that were suddenly punctuated by terrifying grief. In fact, four out of the 10 movements are in a major key. As Dvorak was a deeply pious man, these passages of brighter and more joyous demeanor likely suggest the optimism of his personal faith.

Dvorak’s lyricism was brought to life by the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s soloists: Lucie Silkenova (soprano), Dagmar Peckova (mezzo-soprano), Jaroslav Brezina (tenor), Jan Martinik (bass). The four were somewhat unevenly matched, with Silkenova’s passionate performance and Brezina’s effortlessly sweet vocals overpowering the other two. The choir, however, did not fail to disappoint with an expansive sound that was especially noteworthy in the fourth movement. The female vocals were especially snowy and crystalline, evoking the presence of angels lifting up the woeful melody. The “Stabat Mater” ultimately concluded with a glorious Beethovenian finish, leaving the audience with goosebumps — not only for having experienced the profound grief of the piece but also for having transcended that anguish to a place of hope.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].