Pro Cantare to feature Dvorak

Oratorio: The Columbia chorus will perform `Stabat Mater' on Saturday in its season opener.

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Howard Live

October 30, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

To gaze up at the expanses of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe is to be overwhelmed by the religious emotionalism of the Middle Ages.

And perhaps nowhere was the intensity of that spiritual connection felt more acutely than in medieval man's obsession with the Virgin Mary.

A 13th-century Franciscan monk named Jacopone da Todi caught that empathic affection in his poem "Stabat Mater," which imagines Mary's pain upon witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus.

"Qui est homo, qui non fleret?" asks the poet. "Who is the man that would not weep if he saw the Mother of Christ in such torment?"

Not surprisingly, these deeply felt emotions have attracted some of history's greatest composers, who couldn't wait to turn them into sublime music.

Haydn, Schubert, Pergolesi, Rossini, Verdi, Poulenc and Szymanowski worked their magic on the text, as did the great Czech master Antonin Dvorak.

His 1880 Stabat Mater was such a success at its London premiere that critics compared the occasion to the debut of Handel's Messiah, perhaps the greatest oratorio of all.

"The work is an absolute masterpiece," says conductor Frances Motyca Dawson, whose Columbia Pro Cantare chorus will open its season at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School with Dvorak's Stabat Mater.

"It's a symphonic piece in that Dvorak uses the orchestra in such a compelling way," Dawson says. "Some of the solo arias are dramatic enough to sound operatic, and Dvorak was such a great melodist he could turn on the charm whenever he wanted to."

That charm notwithstanding, Dvorak composed his masterwork in the grip of immense personal tragedy as he mourned the loss of three of his children, who had died over a two-year span. As the composer was imagining the Virgin's grief, his own sadness was as immanent as could be.

But, as Dawson makes clear, Stabat Mater is about poignancy and strength, not mere doom and gloom. "What's so incredible," the conductor says, "is that he's never afraid to use a major key. There's suffering, yes, but it leads to healing and maybe even an element of joy."

To weave this grand emotional tapestry of sound, Dawson will rely on her full chorus, Pro Cantare's Festival Orchestra and four first-rate soloists. Metropolitan Opera Competition winner April-Joy Gutierrez will sing the soprano part. She will be joined by mezzo-soprano Mary Ann McCormick, tenor Charles Reid and bass-baritone Lester Lynch, all members of the Met's roster.

To open the concert, pianists Yong Hi Moon and Brian Ganz, both members of the Peabody Institute's piano faculty, will play several of Dvorak's joyous and feisty Slavonic Dances in a four-handed arrangement.

Both pianists have strong local ties. Moon has lived and taught in Columbia for a number of years, and Ganz, now an Annapolis resident, was raised in Howard County.

"We used to start some of our concerts with an informal musicale," recalls Dawson, "so we thought we'd go back to our roots a little. Besides, these are two of the best pianists around."

Columbia Pro Cantare opens its 27th concert season at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School. Barbara Renton, a noted musicologist and a specialist in Czech music, will present a free pre-concert lecture from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The audience is invited to a free post-concert dessert reception to meet the artists. Advance tickets are $23 for adults, and $20 for seniors and students; $25 and $22 at the door. Information: 410-465-5744 or 410-799-9321.

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