Since its inception in 1984 under the direction of Phillip McClendon, the Santa Barbara Master Chorale has been the only community-based choral group solely dedicated the magical meeting place of orchestra and voice. Directed by Westmont College professor Steven Hodson since 2007, the Chorale has continued to perform bi-annual concerts featuring a variety of music ranging from Baroque to pops, including an especially memorable 2010 performance of Mikis Theodorakis’s setting of Canto General by Pablo Neruda. I only had to hear a few measures on Sunday to remember how powerful is the combination of choir and orchestra, and why so many film composers from John Williams to Howard Shore exploit it to such effect.
Stabat Mater (1877) was the first religious-themed work by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. A cantata based on a medieval text that deals with the sorrows of Mary, Stabat Mater premiered in Prague and later served as a gateway to the composer’s success in England. Expressing appropriately the sorrows of the text, this somber and often slow music may also reflect Dvořák’s own loss of three of his children. Hodson spoke briefly before the concert and made a plea for the role of music in dealing with our sorrows. Acknowledging the tragedy in Boston this week, he quoted the arresting non-violent resolve of Leonard Bernstein, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Four soloists joined the 59 singers and 32 instrumentalists: soprano Tara Eisenhauer, Mezzo soprano Danielle Bond, tenor Benjamin Brecher, and bass Emil Cristescu. These singers illuminated some of the most successful moments in the concert, as when Bond sang “Inflammatus et accensus” with great sensitivity, and Eisenhauer and Brecher harmonized on “Fac, ut portem Christi morem.” Cristescu’s bass lent appropriate gravitas throughout. One unfortunate imbalance in the chorus is the same one that often plagues choirs—the gender balance (37 women / 22 men); some ensemble moments plainly lacked weight in the lower end. But elsewhere, like the rolling triple-meter theme of the fifth movement, the choir shined with Dvořák’s genius.