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Music for Good Friday

Calvary Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.
04/10/2009 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Stabat Mater
Sharon Christman (soprano), Susan Sevier (contralto), Rick Christman (tenor), Matthew Osifchin (baritone)
Chalice Singers and Chamber Orchestra, Justus Parrotta (organ continuo), Cheryl Branham (conductor)

S. Servier & S. Christman (© Serate Musicali)

Washington, D.C. is a city of many cathedrals, churches, and synagogues, and as such the city abounds with choruses, choirs, orchestras, organs, and vocalists of the very finest caliber. On any given night a multitude of concerts employing these various forces take place throughout the city. Masses, Oratorios, Motets, Cantatas, etc. are continually being mounted. And so it is on this Good Friday of Holy Week that the historic and imposing Calvary Baptist Church, located in the center of Chinatown, presents its annual rendition of one of the great Stabat Mater.

The text of the Stabat Mater is attributed to the poet Jacopone da Todi (1228-1306). In its first eight stanzas the poem relates a profound compassion for the Mother of Christ as she stands and beholds her son on the Cross. Among the many famous settings of the Stabat Mater are those by Alessandro Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Boccherini, Rossini, and Haydn. Haydn’s composition dates from around 1767 when Haydn was under the employ of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. It was his first large scale choral work, and the first to be published during his lifetime. As an early work, it can easily be said that it does not rank in genius or maturity with The Creation, and perhaps contains too many movements in minor keys with adagio and lento tempi. It does however abound with superb choruses and elaborate solos.

This performance was based on an edition created by comparing the original manuscript with the first printed editions by Breitkopf, Sieber and others. Maestra Branham employed a force of 21 musicians, which is approximately the number Haydn would have used in performing the work for the Esterházy court. This concert was given in the beautiful sanctuary of the Calvary Baptist Church, which features superb acoustics and a magnificent and imposing four manual Möller pipe organ.

The performance was highly refined, and detailed with a knowing sense of the rococo style. The four featured soloists are among the finest the city has to offer. Soprano Sharon Christman, a noted Metropolitan Opera Queen of the Night, sailed effortlessly through her many melismas, and produced a poignant and delicious silvery tone. Tenor Rick Christman, renowned for his Arnoldo in Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell at the Zurich Staatsoper, sang with a burnished and clarion tone not often associated with the singing of Haydn. It was thrilling. Contralto Susan Sevier is always a joy to hear. A “true” contralto of enormous depth and range, she conveyed a great sense of pathos and sorrow in her singing. The handsome young bass baritone, Matthew Osifchin, had the only rousing and allegro music in this work. His solos, which rang with brilliance and force in the sanctuary, were very exciting.

A special word must be said about the excellence of organist Justus Parrotta’s continuo playing. He is considered one of the finest organists in the United States, and his playing justified his fame. Maestra Cheryl Branham has been a vibrant presence on Washington’s music scene for over ten years now. She may add this concert to her long list of distinguished performances.

Micaele Sparacino



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