Preparing Dvořák's Stabat Mater for performance: the artful and mysterious process of a choral collaboration
by Judith Wartels and Sandra Lundren for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 19, 2011

Paul F. MuellerOn Saturday, May 21 at 8 PM, members of Greenwich Choral Society (Paul F. Mueller, Music Director) and Westchester Choral Society (Frank Nemhauser, Music Director) will join forces with soloists and orchestra under the direction of Mr. Mueller in a performance of Antonín Dvořák's choral masterwork, Stabat Mater. The concert, which will feature soprano Inna Dukach, alto Dana Beth Miller, tenor Charles Reid and bass Nicholas Masters, will take place at the Palace Theatre (Stamford Center for the Arts), in Stamford, Connecticut. The 160 singers of the combined choruses, having now come together for the first joint rehearsal, have experienced a mysterious musical alchemy by which our singing is being transformed into an interpretive rendering of this great work quite beyond the sum of our separate parts.

The work itself has been deeply felt by many choristers to be at once a work of great spirituality and an unforgettable expression of the human condition. Many other composers, including Palestrina, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Rossini and Poulenc, have set the sacred text of the Stabat Mater to music, but Dvořák's work, composed on what seems to be a limitless canvas reaching from darkest earth to the heights of heaven, is striking for its extraordinary spiritual intensity. The empty octaves of the opening eight measures convey the almost unbearable desolation of the Mother at the cross. Then, through evolving stages of sorrow, compassion and hope for redemption, the work culminates in the ecstasy of the final Quando corpus morietur, with its overwhelming confidence. In the dying minutes of the Stabat Mater, the orchestra goes silent, and the choir breaks out unaccompanied into an amazing hymn of praise. The orchestra returns to accompany the choir for the final Amen culminating in one of the most powerful declarations of faith in the history of music.

At our joint rehearsal, singers of both choruses discovered what we believe both Music Directors sought, in planning this joint concert: an insight into the extraordinary musical rewards of bringing the two choral ensembles together. Many expressed their appreciation of the artistic and collaborative skills of Mr. Mueller and Mr. Nemhauser that gave us the opportunity to attain such a high level of accomplishment, despite the challenges of coming together for the first time shortly before performance, bridging the inevitable differences in culture between any two choral groups.

A singer from WCS told us:

"Collaborating with another choral group is something that every chorus member should experience -- in fact, it should be mandatory. We sing in a group for a reason -- that the sum of massed voices raised in song is better than just ours alone. What better way to experience this than through a combined concert event? Combined choruses possess a special energy that surpasses simply singing with the same static group. It brings a critical vitality and spark that performing alone simply can not provide."

This singer also found that working with a conductor other than one's own reminds us to focus on choral basics of knowing one's part inside and out (notes, intervals, dynamics, tempi and phrasing) to be prepared for a different musical interpretation. Many singers were thrilled by the tonal experience, with all voices together creating Dvořák's astonishing tonal palette.

A chorister from GCS said:

"It's always very exciting to join forces with a new choral group such as the Westchester Choral Society but particularly so for an upcoming performance of one of the warhorses of the choral literature. Performing this choral gem in a big hall such as the Palace Theatre in Stamford with 160 voices will make the work truly come alive and sparkle. The fortissimos will be bigger and the pianissimos more spine-tingling. The contrasts in tone color and shading from one movement to the next will be more easily discernable to the listener and add to the dramatic character of the work. For me there is a palpable energy when singing in a large group which comes from the sheer volume of sound all around me and the singular dedication of all of those voices working together to create beautiful music."

A chorister from WCS shared her thoughts:

"The rafters shook! The heavens smiled, and this chorister was awestruck by the beauty of the sound and the music. After months of rehearsing the Dvořák Stabat Mater with the Westchester Choral Society and with a 'rehearsal CD', I had the thrill of singing the work with our guests, the Greenwich Choral Society at our first joint rehearsal. It is not just the total number of voices that made the difference, but rather the devotion by both choruses rehearsing separately to prepare this work for performance together. With a limited number of joint rehearsals every moment had to count. Paul Mueller made that happen to shape the sound, the intonation, the intent and the beauty. Paul Mueller is a master at demonstrating exactly what he wants and expects. His own lyrical singing of legato lines and quick interval corrections provided the exact direction needed to move on quickly. What fun to have our conductor Frank Nemhauser singing along in the back row, enjoying the fruit of his labor and adding to the glorious sound!"

Singers from GCS advised us:

"During last night's first joint rehearsal of Dvořák's Stabat Mater by the Greenwich and Westchester Choral Societies, I felt surges of enthusiasm and lots of good will. The group also produced some terrific, blast-the-paint-off-the-walls sound! It left me optimistic that we'll do justice to this beautiful piece while we make new friends in the process."

"Last night's first rehearsal together raised the roof (or, at least, the acoustically wrapped ceiling) in the Conservatory hall we sang in. Our combined forces pushed back to the walls. The sound was tremendous and the power of Dvořák's music became even more apparent. The host singers were more than friendly in welcoming us. This will be a memorable concert."

A singer from WCS wrote:

"Joining voices with GCS was awesome! The bigger sound enhanced my feelings for the piece. I guess it is like turning up the stereo and 'feeling' the music. I felt excited and proud to be a part of the sound. I was also impressed by how easy it was to follow a different conductor."

Choristers of GCC and WCS were excited about the shared contributions made to our joint endeavor by both conductors. Mr. Mueller said, "This work is rewarding on so many levels--musically, emotionally, and by giving us the opportunity to partner with our fellow singers and friends from Westchester." Mr. Nemhauser advised us: "This is the fourth time I have prepared a chorus to perform Dvořák's Stabat Mater. Now that I am preparing the WCS chorus to sing it under Mr. Mueller's direction, I find I am still learning new things about this treasured work through the eyes and ears of my colleague."

We invite you to hear the result of our collaboration at the Palace Theatre, 61 Atlantic Avenue, Stamford, Connecticut, on Saturday, May 21 at 8 PM. Tickets, priced at $42-$28 (plus SCA Fee) are available through the Stamford Center for the Arts Box Office at www.scalive.org or by calling 203-325-4466. For further information, visit www.greenwichchoralsociety.org or www.westchesterhoralsociety.org.

Judith Wartels sings with Westchester Choral Society. Sandra Lundren sings with Greenwich Choral Society.
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