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Religious experience

‘Seven Last Words of Christ’ set for service, concert

Thursday, March 28, 2013
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Religious experience


Early Dutch painter Quentin Matsys (1466-1529) created this triptych “Christ on the Cross With Donor.” A slide show of artwork will accompany the Musicians of Ma’alwyck’s “Seven Last Words of Christ.”
Early Dutch painter Quentin Matsys (1466-1529) created this triptych “Christ on the Cross With Donor.” A slide show of artwork will accompany the Musicians of Ma’alwyck’s “Seven Last Words of Christ.”

Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, the artistic director for Musicians of Ma’alwyck, is always on the lookout for something special to program. Last year, she was talking with local organist Alfred Fedak about pieces when he made a suggestion she couldn’t turn down.

“I have a thing for Haydn’s music,” Barker Schwartz said. “It’s one of my passions. Al suggested his ‘Seven Last Words of Christ.’ ”

She knew the work took about 70 minutes when it was done in its entirety, but she thought it might be interesting to see how other composers had used the same material. That led her to Heinrich Schütz’s “Die Sieben Worte” and, because she wanted a contemporary setting of the material, Alan Ridout’s “The Seven Last Words.”

The concert will be presented tomorrow at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany as part of Good Friday services and on Saturday at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady as a concert.

Musicians of Ma’alwyck

Friday: 7:30 p.m. Westminster Presbyterian Church, 262 State St., Albany; 463-8544; www.wpcalbany.org; free

Saturday: 3 p.m. First Reformed Church, 8 N. Church St., Schenectady; 377-3623; www.musiciansofmaalwyck.org; $25, $10

Commissioned in 1786

Haydn was commissioned in 1786 to write something for the Good Friday service for the Cathedral of Cadiz, Spain. The idea was to have the priest speak a word or a short phrase based on Christ’s Last Words as excerpted from the four Gospels. Then, while he’d fall to his knees to pray at the altar, an orchestra would play 10 minutes of music at a slow tempo. This would be repeated six times. Haydn wrote an introduction, seven orchestral “sonatas” and a final “earthquake” movement.

“It was done in a grotto and they locked the audience in and covered the windows in black and lit the candles,” Barker Schwartz said. “It was hoped the people would feel awe of the music and be transported.”

It proved to be one of Haydn’s greatest hits and prompted him to soon after write a quartet version.

“The quartet version is very effective. It captures the entire sense of the piece,” she said. “He duplicates the rhythm of the words, which are said in Latin, in the melody. In fact the words define the melody. Haydn wrote each word of the phrase under the notes [in the score].”

On a visit to Germany, Haydn heard his work revised by local chorus master so he could use his chorus. Haydn liked what he heard.

“But he said he could make a better arrangement. So he prepared his own choral version,” Barker Schwartz said with a laugh.

The choral version was premiered in 1796.

For this performance, Barker Schwartz, who plays violin, will work with violinist Liz Silver, violist Matt Johnson and cellist Petia Kassarova. Of the nine sections, the quartet will do only the Introduction, Sonata 5 (“Sitio”), Sonata 6 (“Consummatum est”), Sonata 7 (“In manus tuas, Domine . . .”) and the “Earthquake.”

Larger group

Schütz’s work requires more personnel: the string quartet, Fedak on organ and five singers, who are soprano Jean Leonard, mezzo-soprano Susan Fedak, tenors John Cox and Tim Reno, and baritone Charles Schwartz. Written in 1685, the work is done as a continuous whole without breaks.

“All the arias and recitatives have each voice as a character to tell the story,” Barker Schwartz said.

The Alan Ridout piece is only for organ. Ridout, a British composer who died in 1996, wrote numerous works for choruses, organ and symphonies. When Barker Schwartz told Fedak about finding the organ piece, he told her he knew of the composer’s vocal pieces but was unfamiliar with the one for organ.

“Once he saw the music, Al said it was a great piece and very difficult,” she said laughing. “He’s been practicing.”

While Haydn took the phrases literally to sculpt his melodies and rhythms, Ridout chose to capture the drama of each phrase over seven movements and in a very tonal setting.

“They go from very pensive to aggressive,” Barker Schwartz said.

Dramatic setting

In keeping with the original production of the Haydn work, Westminster gave the group permission to darken the church and to light candles. Keeping things dark will be a little more difficult for the afternoon concert, but, she said, they’ll try.

To make the concert and service even more dramatic, Fedak has prepared 80 slides that will run as the music plays. The slides run the gamut of current, historical and graphic images to slides of sculpture and paintings.

“It’s very gripping,” Barker Schwartz said.

The pastors at both churches will read the phrases and have told Barker Schwartz how excited they are to have these pieces performed.

“Whether you’re religious or not, people will find it thought provoking,” she said.

 
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