.Live Review: Rossini Stabat Mater

Dan Earle directs the SR Symphonic Chorus.

What makes a Stabat Mater so special? Is it the holy text? The seriousness with which composers undertake the task? Whatever it may be, the Santa Rosa Symphonic Chorus and Santa Rosa Chamber Orchestra plucked every string in both chambers of the heart this weekend with their rousing performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa.
Rossini’s version of the sacred text, which dates back to the 13th Century as a somber hymn about the Sorrows of Mary, is powerful in a very Rossini way. At first, it might be surprising to know Rossini even composed a Stabat Mater (it was to me, at least). But the Romantic composer known for wild operas like the Barber of Seville and William Tell (think The Lone Ranger theme) was known for memorable melodies and dramatic crescendos stayed true to the feeling of the piece.
The four soloists, Carol Menke (soprano), Bonnie Brooks (mezzo), Alvin Brightbell (tenor) and Michel Bell (baritone) sparkled over both minimal backing and the full force of a 60-voice choir and large chamber ensemble. Special consideration is due to Menke, who filled in each night for Roseanne Ackerly when she fell ill the night before the Friday night performance. Menke is a superb local talent who took the score at 10:30pm before the next evening’s performance and knocked it out of the park.
The orchestra and choir, under direction of Dan Earle, did a good job conveying Rossini’s dramatic flair, which he did through dynamics more than unconventional form or chord structures. There are some hairy passages, with plenty of stomach-twisting dissonances, but it doesn’t bring tears in the way Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater does. And each of the 10 movements stands on its own well, though they do borrow themes from each other.
There are memorable melodies in each movement, brought to life by the chorus and soloists. Though 70 minutes of music that intense is about the maximum I would be comfortable with, there are lighter movements, like the second with the tenor soloist on his own, that lift the spirit and evoke feelings of renewal.
Rossini is successful in putting his own spin on the Stabat Mater, but maybe he just isn’t the perfect candidate for what the text is traditionally going for. It’s in Latin, but here’s the gist of it: Mary sees her son Jesus die on the cross, is very sad about it, wishes it would be her instead, accepts that her soul will be with him after her body is finished with it. Seems like a story ripe for some emotional music, right?
Stabat Maters aren’t as popular as fun pieces like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons of arias from the Marriage of Figaro or Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme because a Stabat Mater isn’t good background music. Stabat Mater is music that must be listened to and not just applied. For that reason, it is a demanding piece. The SR Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Orchestra, along with the professional vocal soloists, did this justice. It was a performance that could not be turned away from, and did nothing to stand in the way of the emotional storyline.

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