Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Frank Ferko: Stabat Mater
Soprano: Rebekah Camm
The prospect of listening to the choral performance of a 13th century Latin hymn, which depicts the Virgin Mary’s suffering while she is witnessing her son’s agonizing death, interpolated with English texts containing variations on the theme of death, somehow does not exactly sound like the perfect plan for a Saturday night. But when you know that the fairly new piece – It came out in 1998 – is by highly regarded American composer Frank Ferko and will be sung by the always adventurous and consistently successful Cantori New York, the proposition becomes definitely more enticing. Finally, upon hearing that the concert will take place in the beautiful Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side, you’re sold.
That’s how I found myself sitting in one of the church’s pews yesterday with a couple of friends, studying the program and promising myself to come back one of these days during daytime to be able to enjoy what looked like magnificent stained-glass windows. In fact, this slight frustration kind of reminded of the ill-timed Vivaldi evening concert at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris last November, when my mum and I got to delight in full musical but limited visual pleasures as darkness had already fallen outside, unceremoniously turning what is an absolutely stunning religious venue by day into a less stunning but still pleasant concert hall by night.
In New York yesterday evening, regardless of the handsome environment the church’s wood interior provided for, it was unquestionably the singing that grabbed and kept everybody’s attention for a whole continuous hour. And what an hour! The dense composition combines many influences, starting with the introduction from the Gospel according to St. Luke to the original Latin text attributed to Jacopone da Todi to four widely different poems dealing with the grief of a mother experiencing her child’s death from war, from AIDS and from drowning. Under Frank Ferko’s brilliant pen, the monumental sum of the numerous small parts and countless musical techniques has come flawlessly together for what has to be, in my humble, non-expert opinion, one of the finest works in contemporary choral writing.
Then came the voices. Although I am by now completely aware that there are apparently no challenges too daunting for Cantori New York, I had also never heard them undertake and conquer such an uncompromisingly complex piece. Now I have. The singers uniformly let all the delicate textures and subtle colors of the music powerfully come to life and fill up the space, deftly working their way through the score’s many treacherous intricacies. As the grieving mother’s voice in the English poems, soprano Rebekah Camm’s vocal feats effortlessly stood out, bright and expressive. After the memorable journey had come to an end, my personal highlights included the brief but gripping moment of lingering atonality at the beginning of the 13th stanza (Fac me tecum), which had everybody in the audience hold their breath, and the lovely chorale-like finale, full of hope and light. Amen indeed.