Pergolesi’s masterpiece (or at least one of them)

By Philippa Kiraly

Pergolesi lived only 26 short years at the start of the 18th century. During that time he wrote two enduring masterpieces in totally different genres—the comic opera “La Serva Padrona,” and the beautiful “Stabat Mater,” commissioned by the monastery of San Luigi di Palazzo. Both have been continuously in the repertoire ever since.

In modern days, the “Stabat Mater,” written for solo soprano and alto voices, has been a staple of school choirs as both voices can be sung by groups, but less often today is it performed as we heard it Saturday night at Town Hall.

Seattle Baroque Orchestra, now joined with Early Music Guild, brought in soprano Yulia Van Doren and countertenor Ian Howell to sing it. Many will remember Van Doren’s remarkable performance in the title role of Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea” here a few years ago.

This, of course, was very different. The words of “Stabat Mater” are of one engaged in compassionate observation and active support of the mother of Christ as she watches her Son suffer and die, the message being one of “Let me bear this pain with you, and come through it in grace at the end.”

The tone was set by harpsichordist and artistic director of SBO, Byron Schenkman, who announced that the performance was dedicated to the families of those whose gay children have been brought to suicide by bullying.

It’s a deceptively simple work. The singers have short solos and duets while the orchestra accompanies them, and nothing is over-the-top florid, but the music is exquisite, the emotions strong, the effect cumulative.
The two singers had different takes on how to perform it. Howell’s countertenor seemed a bit lacking in support at the beginning, the result being that his first solos sounded a little weak. He also brought little expression to the words at that point. However the voice gathered strength towards the end, and in his last aria and duet, his clear and unstrained voice well conveyed the emotions of the words. His is the way we might hear this sung in many western churches today.

Van Doren, on the other hand, is a storyteller. She gave the words dramatic emphasis and great expression in a way quite startling at first in this context, and then deeply moving.
The contrast left this listener wondering how it would have been sung in Pergolesi’s time. With boys’ or men’s voices, to be sure, and at a time when displaying strong emotion in music had become the norm in Italy.

Either way, these two beautiful voices with fine orchestral accompaniment created a memorable performance.
The “Stabat Mater” made up the second half of the concert, the first being orchestral works by Alessandro Scarlatti, Charles Avison (who arranged a harpsichord sonata by Domenico Scarlatti), Francesco Durante and Nicola Porpora. The last two are composers we hardly ever hear and that’s a shame as both have plenty to say. Durante was the more adventurous and his work, Concerto II in G Minor, stood out for its unusual and effective use of chromaticism and dissonance.

The orchestra’s excellent first cellist, Nathan Whittaker, acted as soloist in Porpora’s Cello Concerto in G Major. Much of the time, he chooses a tone more resiny than warm, but he did a fine job of the cadenza, and particularly of the third beautiful, plaintive, movement.

The Early Music Guild brings back many of the stellar “Poppea” singers, including Van Doren, soprano Terri Richter and tenors Ross Hauck and Jason McStoots, to sing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers at St. James Cathedral in early December. It should be an event not to miss.

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