Ulster Orchestra: Sadness and beauty in performance of Dvorak's Stabat Mater

​​When concert-goers see Dvorak’s name they tend to think of his final symphonies including the best-known Ninth ‘New World’ Symphony, but people may be less familiar with his Stabat Mater which is a masterpiece in its own right.
Conductor Jac van Steen took charge of the performance of Dvorak’s Stabat MaterConductor Jac van Steen took charge of the performance of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater
Conductor Jac van Steen took charge of the performance of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater

It was performed by the Ulster Orchestra, the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and soloists on Good Friday evening, for an appreciative audience in a well-filled Ulster Hall.

In recent years the orchestra has performed sacred works on this important weekend in the Christian calendar, and last year the focus was on Haydn’s Creation, so the timing of the Dvorak Stabat Mater was entirely appropriate.

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The concert was in the extremely capable hands of the distinguished Jac Van Steen, the honorary principal guest conductor of the Ulster Orchestra who is a regular visitor to Belfast.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was a deeply religious husband and father, and his Stabat Mater was completed in 1877 after the deaths of his young children at a time when infant mortality was commonplace. The Stabat Mater poem about Mary at the Cross, used by so many other composers, is an inspired context in which to express emotions and thoughts about life and death, and the mystery of resurrection for those who believe in such deliverance.

Dvorak’s Stabat Mater was written and performed in 10 separate movements for over 81 minutes without an interval, and it moved so seamlessly and compellingly that the journey seemed much shorter, with the orchestra and soloists Ailish Tynan, Carolyn Dobbin, John Findon and Darren Jeffery always delivering with sincerity and understanding.

There was sadness and beauty throughout, and the prolonged final Amen was powerful and riveting, and ending in a quiet finality reminiscent of Christ’s last words from the Cross – “it is finished”. This was an evening to elevate the soul, as one concert-goer remarked on the way out.

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The Belfast Philharmonic Choir, which celebrates its 150th anniversary next season, was impressive with its soaring chorus rippling across the auditorium.

It was also good to see so many of the 120-strong choir on stage, and much credit is due to its chorus director James Grossmith for maintaining the highest standards since his arrival in 2022.

The next major collaboration between the Ulster Orchestra and the Phil will be on May 24 with a performance in the Waterfront Hall of Mahler’s mighty Resurrection Symphony which will mark the departure of chief conductor Daniele Rustioni at the end of the season.