Bouncing the hymn off the walls

At the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival, four very different versions of Stabat Mater will be presented.

Jerusalem Academy Choir and String Ensemble (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem Academy Choir and String Ensemble
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is often an intellectually and aurally stimulating exercise to listen to several renditions of the same work.
Increasingly, jazz CDs include bonus tracks with different takes on the same number. But what Stanley Sperber, along with the String Ensemble and Jerusalem Academy Choir, is offering at the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival takes that mindset a step or two further. The October 21 (11:30 p.m.) concert at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church features no less than four musical versions of the same liturgical text. The better known workings in the concert program are by Scarlatti and Pergolesi, with another by 19th-century Lichtensteinborn composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger and an a cappella rendition of 17th-century Spanish composer Juan Gutierrez de Padilla’s shorter interpretation of the text.
The prayer in question is Stabat Mater, a 13th-century Roman Catholic hymn to Mary. There are, in fact, two hymns with similar names, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Stabat Mater Dolorosa tells the sad story of Mary’s anguish as she watches her son’s crucifixion, while the other, Stabat Mater Speciosa, joyfully refers to the Nativity of Jesus . The Abu Ghosh concert program is devoted entirely to the more doleful of the two works, but Sperber believes the audience is in for a special and highly varied experience.
“It is very interesting to see how four different composers are moved by the same words,” says the conductor. “I tried to find pieces that have diversity from each other. The Padilla is a short a cappella piece, very much in the style of the Renaissance, early Baroque. The Domenico Scarlatti piece is more unusual because it was written for a 10-part chorus – four soprano parts, two alto parts, two tenor parts and two bass parts.”
The vocal spread also presents the Jerusalem Academy Choir with quite a challenge. “The choir is really up against it with this,” Sperber notes. “It is complicated, but it is a gorgeous piece for choir and continuo, which means we will be accompanied just by the organ.”
Sperber has also taken the opportunity to introduce the audience to a reading by one of the more obscure composers of the late Romantic period. “Rheinberger’s work is not so nearly as well known as the Pergolesi, which is the most popular of the four we are doing,” he says.
“The Rheinberger is a very emotional and highly romantic style work. Then there’s the Pergolesi, which is the most enigmatic of the four. The text is unbelievably tragic and describes Maria’s torment as she watches her son being crucified, yet the music in most of the movements is quite light, almost jovial. It is difficult to find the logic. It makes it a very difficult job for the conductor because he has the highly traumatic text, and then you have some of these movements that merrily dance along – sort of ‘Shall we dance, tra la la la.’”
Staying faithful to the score is the way to go for Sperber. “I try not to put a damper on the spirit as the music rolls right along. Don’t forget that Pergolesi only lived until his late twenties, so this work is an expression of the inner joy he felt about his religion, or it was just his mode of expression at that time. Maybe it was his means of deliverance from the tragic events described in the text – who knows? It’s hard to get inside the head of a composer, especially when they didn’t write anything down about their piece. The conductor’s job is to stay as honest as he can to the written text, the musical text.”
Variety is very much the spice of life for Sperber, particularly when the written words are identical. “I think the interesting thing about this problem is that, on the one hand, four pieces based on Stabat Mater might make for a pretty depressing concert, but the music suggests the contrary. As I said, some parts are quite jovial, so you have all kinds of moods and emotions being expressed through the same text.”
The concert’s performance range will be stretched even further by the positioning of the choir. “We will do the Padilla work with the singers standing in a circle around the audience, and then we’ll come on stage and do the other pieces,” Sperber explains.
The conductor says he and the ensemble and choir have prior experience of the Kiryat Ye’arim Church and were keen to utilize its acoustic qualities to the full.
“You get a wonderful echo from the church, so we can take the music more slowly to allow it to come back at the audience. Sometimes, in more modern halls, you have to be careful not to leave any dead moments in the music, and you have to move things along. You don’t have that problem in Abu Ghosh. It’s a great place to perform in.”
For more information about the concert and the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival: For tickets: (03) 604-500 and *8965 or (02) 623- 7000.