Saturdays, July 18 & 25, 7:30 PM
Sunset Center Theater

Orchestra, Chorale, Chorus and Soloists conducted by Paul Goodwin

J.S. Bach, Magnificat, BWV 243
Mhairi Lawson, Jennifer Paulino, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone
Gioachino Rossini, Stabat Mater
Mhairi Lawson, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Jonathan Boyd, tenor; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Bach’s Magnificat opens the 83rd Festival in a blaze of glory! A jubilant tone is set by an unusually large ensemble, with five soloists, five-part choir, trumpets, timpani and full wind section. Its splendor anticipates the great choruses that came later with Bach’s B-Minor Mass. During the 30-minute work, you are taken on a musical journey through ten verses and a Gloria with musical lines that somehow always seem ascend. The rhythmic energy of the opening and closing choruses sets a perfect, joyful and boisterous tone to kick off the 83rd Festival.

Rossini’s Stabat Mater shares the emotional depth and musical style of the composer’s nearly 40 well-known grand operas. Rossini combines his operatic genius with the grand tradition of sacred music, infusing the piece with great theatrical drama very much in the tradition of Bach’s Passions. The libretto inspired composers from Pergolesi to Verdi to compose their own versions and Rossini brings the full weight of his compositional prowess to the Stabat Mater. He unites different forms from arias, duets, and quartets to a cappella chorus in this powerful work that encompass a wide range of emotions from tragic to hopeful.

The text is fashioned as a prayer describing Mary’s pain. The vivid language, a Latin poem probably from the 13th century is set in ten movements. From peaceful reflection to the immense waves of sound in its closing fugal Amen, Rossini’s Stabat Mater is a monumental work of sacred music in the Romantic era.

“Our Saturday concert takes the listener on a journey from the rhythmic energy and vocal punch of Bach’s Magnificat to the extraordinary operatic vistas of Rossini’s greatest choral work, Stabat Mater,” said Artistic Director Paul Goodwin. “This is a concert of two worlds and two contrasting beauties.”

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Program Notes

Bach composed his setting of the Magnificat during his first year in Leipzig, for Christmas Vespers in 1723. Lutheran tradition called for this Canticle of the Virgin Mary from the Gospel of Luke to be chanted in German during vespers services, but special feast days merited performances of more elaborate versions in Latin. Bach’s original setting was set in E-flat Major and included four Christmas interpolations, half in German and half in Latin, derived from chorale tunes and extraneous to the Magnificat text. Bach revised the Magnificat some years later—lowering the principal key to D Major (a more brilliant key for trumpets), omitting the Christmas sections, and making some changes to the instrumentation—resulting in the version most commonly performed today.

A separate movement is devoted to each of the 12 lines of the canticle. The musical settings are remarkably descriptive of the text. Much like the beginning of the Christmas Oratorio, the opening chorus, Magnificat, establishes a spirited, festive mood. The aria Et exaltavit is appropriately lighthearted in character. By contrast, Quia respexit, with its darkly colored oboe d’amore accompaniment, strikes a mournful note with a falling line on the word humilitatem (lowliness). This leads directly into the chorus Omnes generations, wherein all the voices, in close imitation, seem to crowd in on top of each other. The bass aria Quia fecit mihi magna (For He that is mighty) is appropriately regal, with emphasis on the word sanctum (holy). The duet Et misericordia  (And his mercy), has a  soothing pastoral character. Fecit Potentiam (He hath shewed strength) brings back the trumpets, with virtuosic vocal runs on the word potentium, driven by a rhythmically vigorous bass line. The tenor solo Deposuit is accompanied starkly by unison violins and continuo. Its dramatic scales descend for deposuit (put down) and rise for exaltavit (exalt). In the lilting Esurientes, a lonely bass pizzicato depicts the emptiness of the rich. In Suscepit Israel the three upper voices weave around the oboes, which play a psalm tune to which the Magnificat was traditionally chanted. The basses begin the fugal Sicut locutus, all voices uniting on the name Abraham. Full orchestral and vocal forces are used to illuminate the Gloria Patri until finally, and most fittingly, Sicut erat in principio (As it was in the beginning) is set to the glorious music of the opening chorus.

Last summer, Rossini’s William Tell Overture (1829) was heard on this stage. This represented the composer’s operatic swan song, for after its premiere he essentially retired at the old ripe age of 37, having composed some 40 operas in half as many years. But as tonight’s performance will show, he was not finished creating. In subsequent years he composed a number of chamber cantatas and instrumental miniatures that he called Sins of My Old Age, plus two significant sacred works, the Petite Messe Solennelle and the Stabat Mater.

Rossini was commissioned to write the Stabat Mater during a visit to Spain in 1831. Because of his belief that the definitive setting of Stabat Mater had already been written by Pergolesi a century earlier, he demurred at first, but soon accepted the challenge. But after completing less than half of the movements, ill health compelled him to ask a colleague, Giovanni Tadolini (1789-1872), to finish the work. It was then performed without acknowledgement of its hybrid authorship. When the manuscript resurfaced nearly a decade later Rossini prevented its publication by replacing Tadolini’s contributions with newly composed movements. The premiere of the now complete Rossini work took place in Paris early in 1842, followed by a performance in Bologna conducted by Donizetti, who later wrote: The enthusiasm is impossible to describe. Even at the final rehearsal, which Rossini attended in the middle of the day, he was accompanied to his home to the shouting of more than 500 persons.  Both productions were unqualified successes. It seems there was a strong appetite for new music by Rossini after his years of silence.

The sombre Introduzione, Stabat mater doloroso (The sorrowful mother was standing) demonstrates the full range of forces displayed throughout the work: orchestra, chorus, and solo quartet. By contrast, the mood of the ebullient tenor aria Cujus animam (Her spirit cried out) might seem at odds with the text—which describes Mary’s suffering broken heart—but Rossini’s intention is sincere and is merely demonstrating that he has no intention of holding back his vast arsenal of styles and colors, and has no reservations about going “operatic” whenever he thinks it appropriate. In addition to arias for each of the soloists, there are dramatic uses of the chorus and soloists a cappella, such as Eja Mater, for chorus and bass recitative, and the penultimate movement Quando corpus, which is indicated for solo quartet but is often performed by the chorus. The Finale anticipates the tragic power of Verdi’s Requiem, a work whose genesis was the death of Rossini in 1868. After a choral fugue (you probably never expected to hear the words Rossini and fugue in the same sentence) Rossini returns briefly to the Introduzione—now with a choral Amen—unifying the work and bringing it to its satisfying conclusion.


–Allen Whear