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Music review: Our Mother (immersive Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) at Stone Nest, Shaftesbury Avenue, London

by
05 April 2024

On bustling Shaftesbury Avenue, Fiona Hook finds herself with Mary

ISTOCK

IT WAS entirely appropriate that a 19th-century London chapel repurposed as a performance space should host Our Mother, an immersive rendition of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater reimagined as a redemptive ritual. The director, Sophie Daneman, and musical director, Frederick Waxman, aimed to move away from the specifically Christian purpose of the text to make it a universal meditation on a mother’s suffering, grief, and loss, with no barriers between audience and performers.

The 1736 original sets the 12th-century Marian Latin hymn for two female voices and strings. Here, an audience sitting or standing round a low, cross-shaped platform heard five women, recalling powerfully the watchers at the Crucifixion, pass the vocal lines between them, as the changing colours of Chris Burr’s lighting reflected the passage from grief to hope in the English translation projected above the stage.

The Welsh composer Alex Mills provided moments of rest and reflection between movements with an instrumental prelude and meditations, developing rhythmic and melodic fragments from the original as he reimagined Mary’s inner spiritual world,

That it was so touching and absorbing an experience was very much due to the quality of the musicians. The one-to-a-part strings of Figure, Waxman’s historical-performance ensemble, warmly underpinned the singers, who emerged from the audience dressed in ordinary clothes.

They were wonderful: a multi-generational band exuding an intense feminine energy, expressing their love and empathy for one another in economical gestures. The voices of the sopranos Emma Kirkby, still perfect at 75, and Rowan Pierce, intertwined with the richer tones of the mezzo-sopranos Catherine Carby and Alexandra Achillea Pouta. Nadya Pickup, still doing her GCSEs, sang in a clear, accurate voice that holds much future promise, as she sweetly offered gestures of comfort to her sorrowing elders.

Stone Nest itself is a Grade II listed former Presbyterian chapel, built in 1888 by James Cubitt, on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the heart of Theatreland. It was a home from home for the London Welsh, and queues would form outside. Closing for worship in 1982, it has been the Limelight nightclub, then a pub, then a squat. It is now an artistic venue with a bar and performance area in the basement, and a galleried space up above.

We ended with a lovely moment of reflection, singing Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” from the sheets provided with the programmes. Nobody worried about whether they could sing: we had all been part of the same journey.

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