The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of Mar. 6, 2005.
Choral groups became the center of attention at this week's New Mexico Symphony Orchestra concert, as chorus director Roger Melone brought his ensemble to the stage of Popejoy Hall to perform Poulenc's Stabat Mater.
They were joined by the Albuquerque Academy Upper School Chorus and the Manzano Day School Chamber Choir in the Prologue from Boïto's opera Mefistofele, another showpiece for chorus. Rounding out the program was Respighi's Fountains of Rome, a work of brilliant orchestral color.
Written in 1950, Stabat Mater is the composer's most impassioned offering, as it memorializes the death of a close friend. The 12-sectioned work employs many significant passages of singing unaccompanied by the orchestra, which may have been an attempt to recall the pure choral sonorities of the Renaissance.
This lushly scored yet moving work was given with careful attention to the changes of texture, dynamic and tempo that accommodate the various moods of the text. Particularly memorable was the difficult fifth section "Quis est homo, qui non fleret" (Is there one who would not weep?) wrought in an effectively frenzied style symbolizing a human being wracked with overwhelming grief. While the soprano has only a few limited solo passages, Barbara Shirvis was outstanding in the impassioned conclusion.
The Fountains, widely regarded as the most accomplished of Respighi's three Rome tone poems, describes four of the city's artificial water displays as seen at the most colorful times of day.
The morning Valle Giulia led swiftly into the Triton Fountain summoning the mythological creatures of the sea. The Trevi, with its homage to Neptune himself (and where Anita Ekberg frolicked in "La Dolce Vita"), was seen at midday as the trombones thundered the arrival of the sea-god's chariot, while the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset brought the day to a close with hushed harmonies of birds, bells and leaves as the twilight deepened.
Arrigo Boïto, known primarily as librettist for Verdi's late operas, was a composer in his own right. Indeed, his Mefistofele is far superior to the melodramas Verdi was then cranking out with all-too-frequent regularity. It is also fundamentally Wagnerian both in quality and breadth of imagination.
In the prologue a series of rich, repeating harmonies are given to the chorus of angels. The young Manzano school choir charmed everyone as cherubim. Zheng Zhou lent his commanding yet silky smooth bass-baritone to the role of Mefistofele, railing vaingloriously at the heavenly ensemble until making a bet with the deity to win Faust's soul. "Il piu bizzarro pazzo" (The strangest lunatic I have ever known), he says. The pact agreed upon, he departs to commence his conquest and the celestial host once again sings gloriously the rising refrain.
All three vocal groups, sonorously and joyfully enthusiastic, were led with full orchestra to a tantalizingly building climax, bringing a well-earned standing ovation for all.