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Dvorak seems to hit the spot
'Stabat Mater' sounds heartfelt at Symphony
Allan Ulrich, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, November 3, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


In a season when the public is seeking spiritual solace where it once quested after passive pleasures, choral music has become a hot ticket, not least because of the Bay Area's pride in and nurturing of its vocal resources. That, and the work's relative unfamiliarity, may have accounted for the substantial audience and uncommonly cordial reception generated by the San Francisco Symphony's absorbing performance of Dvorak's "Stabat Mater" Thursday evening in Davies Symphony Hall.

Given by the orchestra only once previously, in 1979, the work was in good hands and sensitive throats on this occasion; one can scarcely hope for a more sympathetic introduction to this frequently engaging, if perplexing, opus, completed by the Bohemian composer in 1877, after the deaths in rapid succession of three of his children. Presiding Thursday was Jiri Belohlavek, a Czech conductor who has been an intermittent presence on the Davies Hall podium since 1992 and has recorded this work (and very well, too).

Ideally, guest conductors should import specialized fare for which they evince particular affinity, if only to combat the homogenized orchestral diet, which clots even the San Francisco Symphony's schedule occasionally (did we really need Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony two subscription seasons in a row?). With an advocate like Belohlavek, four superior vocal soloists and the participation of Vance George's magnificent Symphony Chorus, chances can and should be taken.

For all its incidental glories, the 10-part "Stabat Mater" never completely transcends its influences -- in Brahms, baroque music and Italian opera. You are left with a series of heart-stopping episodes without a clear formal plan. Dvorak makes gestures at building an architecture -- the awesome rising orchestral figures at the opening return in the final section -- yet it is in the individual sections where the piece is most impressive, where Dvorak writes from the heart.

In those places, even if the music seems inspired by an earlier model, the score gets to you, because the directness of the composer's inspiration bypasses formula. The wondrous tenor aria, "Fac me vere tecum," with its imitative choral responses, capitalizes on the simplicity of the gesture and the anguish of the soloist. Thursday, Stanford Olsen (replacing Valentin Prolat) delivered his part with clarion splendor and a canny sensitivity to dynamics.

Then there was the formidable Russian contralto Larissa Diadkova, last summer's tremendous Amneris at the San Francisco Opera, whose uncompromised lushness of tone imparted both urgency and breadth to the surprisingly bouncy "Inflammatus." A young Slovakian baritone, Gustav Belacek, provided a sonorous response to the "Fac, ut ardeat cor meum" (a self-contained dramatic scena), but the sliding into pitches and mushy Latin projection were aberrations.

Soprano Pamela Coburn, joining Olsen for the "Fac, ut portem," proved reliable, but this artist also displays a hardening of a once easily produced voice. One needs something more serene in this assignment.

The Symphony Chorus was the anchor. Dvorak spices his score by isolating the sections. George's ardent tenors were well matched by his seraphic sopranos.

Too often in performance the "Stabat Mater" acquires a patina of complacency; not for nothing was the piece favored in Victorian England. Belohlavek swept away that mustiness by sustaining cogent tempi, encouraging vivacious wind contributions and imparting thrust and urgency in the phrasing. Converts were made Thursday.


SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY will perform Dvorak's "Stabat Mater" at 8 p.m. tonight in Davies Symphony Hall, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets: $29-$85. (415) 864-6000 or

E-mail Allan Ulrich at

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