12 November 2014
The Czech Philharmonic at Cal Performances
Last Sunday afternoon was one of those recent days of disquieting beauty – November is supposed to be cold and rainy, and something feels awry when all is blue, balmy, and beautiful. There was comforting beauty in store at Zellerbach Hall, where I headed that afternoon to hear the Cal Performances's presentation of Jirí Belohlávek leading the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Philharmonic Choir (Lukáš Vasilek Choir Master) and four soloists in Dvorák's Stabat Mater, his epic setting of the old Latin prayer meditating on the Virgin Mary at the foot of her son's cross.
I'm surprised the piece isn't as well known as the Brahms and Verdi Requiems; it requires vast forces – the stage was packed – but it's a wonderful piece, and people want to hear it – the auditorium was also packed, and on such a lovely day. I've sometimes thought of compiling a list of words and phrases I've come to loathe, and accessible (as applied to the arts) would head the list – it always makes me feel like a scrawny baby bird mewling for mommy bird to chew up my worms for me – so I'll say that the piece is immediately emotionally available, and filled with melodies that flow and ebb like a melancholy sea; it creates a meditative and moving atmosphere and keeps you there for its ninety-minute duration.
The orchestra and chorus were both splendid, but I did go back-and-forth a bit about the soloists. I guess my favorite was the imposing bass Jan Martiník. I really liked tenor Jaroslav Brezina (oddly listed in the program as a baritone) but I always had the feeling he was singing Italian opera – that's not a bad thing, necessarily. It was just how his voice struck me, with its exclamatory heroic sound. Alto Dagmar Pecková seems a bit underpowered to me, though I heard from others who sat elsewhere (I was about halfway down the left-hand side of the orchestra) that her voice had more presence elsewhere. Soprano Lucie Silkenová had a lovely clear voice but sometimes it seemed a shade unsteady to me. But these are all quibbles. I've heard recordings of this piece but they never really came alive for me the way this performance did. The audience was spellbound and deeply attentive. The young woman down the row from me kept coughing loudly, but she did leave several times – but then she'd come back. I can't really blame her for wanting to hear the rest of the performance, though.
At the end there was an ardent ovation, one of the most striking I've heard recently. As his final gesture, the lights behind him giving him an aureole of white hair, Belohlávek held up his copy of the score. I love it when performers do that, giving the composer the final salute. When the audience started filing out I ran into a friend who raved about how pretty it all was. I think I'd have gone for a different word, but she clearly loved it though she then said she had to ignore the words since she has trouble with all religious stories. I was kind of amused by this since I had been wishing they had used surtitles for the Latin text. I suggested that perhaps she could just think of it as a mother mourning a son tortured to death by the authorities. "No, I just want to hear it as sound, all sound." The sounds were indeed beautiful, and conveyed their own meaning.