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Concert Review

Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra

European Masterworks - March 8, 2014

by Eric Callagher

This third concert of the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra’s 18th season featured just two classical works that were unfamiliar to me:  Charles Villiers Stanford’s Stabat Mater (1907) and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 52 (Lobgesang, “Hymn of Praise”).  In his pre-concert talk, Conductor Donald Kendrick walked attendees through these rarely-performed masterworks, illustrating his words with short recorded segments.  He sang along with the recording and moved his arms, entranced, while he directed his invisible orchestra and choir.  It was hard not to share his enthusiasm.  I concluded that this kind of pre-concert talk is a must-see.  And even though I felt as if I had been prepared for it, the actual performance was much more than I expected.

(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)

Visually, this is an impressive performing organization.  The entry of the orchestra, then choir, then soloists so completely filled the stage with musicians as to draw an understandable gasp from a fellow audience member nearby.  Even before a single note was played, there was a wonderful sense of anticipation.

This was the West Coast premier of Stanford’s Stabat Mater.  The piece began with an emotional orchestral introduction: horns quietly repeating a series of chords that built in volume and transition to a rumbling crescendo of timpani, followed by a dreamy melody from the strings.  During this beautiful, emotionally charged introduction, I realized to my surprise that Conductor Kendrick was directing the work without music.  Fascinating as he was to watch, my attention was diverted to the highlighted melodies in this expansive and emotional music, as oboes, clarinets, and cellos emphasized their melody as if craving to be noticed.  Through it all, Kendrick conducted from the heart – SCSO performed likewise.

The sorrowful lyrics passed from soprano, to tenor, to the quartet, with the woodwinds playing in counterpoint, all culminating in a crescendo from the choir that restated that lovely melody.  It felt like the work was undulating between expansive orchestral passages and that mournful, serene melody.  SCSO’s performance moved me and, I believe, everyone in the theater through the emotional rollercoaster of the Mournful Mother as she experienced the anguish of her son Jesus’ crucifixion.

I felt that the vocal performances were artistic and moving, colored with a mature depth of emotion.  The choir seemed well-rehearsed and responsive to the conductor’s enthusiasm.

After the somber and thought-provoking Stabat Mater, the frolicking Lobgesang – Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 – was a significant change of pace.  I understand that this piece is rarely performed in its entirety, with the first movement usually omitted.  That would have been a disappointment for me because the symphony opened with a rousing trombone chorus, echoed by the strings with a distinct pronouncement motif – a theme repeated through the work. As I write this, the “pronouncement” echoes in my mind.  “Bum bum bubum babaah…” The motif seemed like a complex musical conversation that moved through the orchestra.  The next and perhaps most memorable movement was a wonderful waltz-like melody of strings and woodwinds countered by a staccato echoing of picked strings and oboes. 

The final movement returned to the pronouncement of the trombones, followed by the entrance of the chorus – “Alles, was Odem hat…” (“Everything that has breath…”) – appropriate lyrics as the proclamation motif was transferred to a new instrument – the human voice.  Various combinations of vocals were then presented with feeling and exquisite diction and artistry.  Especially notable was the soprano duet against the chorus.  The voices were so well matched, and the emotions of hope and joy came through clearly.  The tenor and soprano duet (“Therefore I sing your praises…”) was a rousing musical experience which expanded into the final chorus proclaiming thanks to the Lord by all that has breath, “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Hern, Halleluja!”  Breathtaking!

The selections in this concert took the audience emotionally through the sorrow and anguish of Stanford’s Stabat Mater to the exalted joy of Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang.  I felt that the music truly expressed the complex feelings of life’s pains and hope through religious poetry.  Translations of the Latin and German lyrics were projected above the stage, although I found it difficult to keep my focus on the translation as my eyes kept being drawn to the impressive picture presented by the soloists, orchestra, chorus, and conductor.

After the concert, it was a special treat to meet the soloists up close.  I was struck with how graciously they interacted with guests and posed for pictures.  The whole evening was such pleasure.  In fact, I was so moved that I couldn’t resist purchasing SCSO’s Carmina Burana CD, a work that will be the centerpiece of their May 17 concert.  After what I saw and heard this evening, it’s a performance I’m really looking forward to.

(More images of this performance can be found at this link.)

 2014 Reviews