Anita reviews The Sixteen's Stabat Mater

Our Manchester performer Anita Ferguson (who played Jesus in our five star production of The Passion in collaboration with The Sixteen earlier this year) shares her thoughts on The Sixteen's Stabat Mater concert at The Bridgewater Hall:

I went to the pre-concert talk with Harry Christophers and one of the soloists. It gave me an interesting perspective on the history of the pieces and we were also treated to several a capella pieces from the The Sixteen's Genesis choir. They are a group of young and promising choral singers who have been given the opportunity to be trained and nurtured by Harry Chistophers and his associates. I'd advise any of our performers to go to such a talk in the future.

MISERERE (composer: James MacMillan)

Miserere was as beautiful as one would expect from a James MacMillan and Sixteen blending. There were times when the choir was so perfectly in harmony that I forgot it was a choir; the singers melted into the strings to create one instrument. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the feelings. The Britten Sinfonia was remarkable too and it was a pleasure to hear such artistry.

STABAT MATER (composer: James MacMillan)

The Stabat Mater is a medieval poem about the sorrow of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she watches her son on the cross. It has been set to music a number of times and James MacMillan was commissioned by The Sixteen to create his. This composition was unlike many of his other works. He is considered the greatest composer of choral music and hearing his work sung by The Sixteen was always going to be a moving and engrossing thing. But this was unlike anything I have heard from a choral piece.

From the first bars, it was surprising, disturbing. The strings played with an unusual use of the bow - which was unlike the gentle strains I was expecting - beginning with a cello and building up to a great, disquieting sound, like a storm beginning. I was already on the edge of my seat.  We could hear the sorrow and yearning of Mary, at first subtle, like a murmur. The strings and the choir alternated to tell the story, each interpreting the words. The two communicated with each other as they talked of Mary. The strings created a sound which was almost organic, alive. The strings seemed to come from all directions, sometimes lyrical and beautiful, then ragged and onomatopoeic. I heard a Celtic, haunting sound in the distance - despair.

Mary's grief grows to an unbearable pitch and the choir is discordant; the singers are ragged and frightened, seeming to scream out in agony. This is no gentle and accepting sorrow. Mary rails in anger and anguish. It is horrifying and beautiful at the same time, and leaves me conflicted - I'm totally immersed and my heart races. When the sound dies away to nothing, niente, I realise that I'm not part of the terror, but am in a hall. This was one of the most enervating choral pieces I have ever heard. I gave myself over to the journey and was thrilled and deeply affected.

I did some reading on James MacMillan and came across something he said about his Stabat Mater. As is well-known, he is a devout Catholic and brings his beliefs into his wonderful sacred music. But his work is relevant to us all. To quote: 'For me, this great poem isn't just about the suffering of one person, even if she is the mother of God. It's about the suffering of humanity, and the need for redemption from suffering, and that makes it very relevant for us now. ' 

For me, great art interprets emotions, from pain to ecstacy, for us all. We are no longer alone. James MacMillan understands human fear and joy. It's obvious.

We met Harry Christophers (conductor) and singers Kirsty Hopkins and Jeremy Budd after the show and they spent some time with us, which was splendid. James MacMillan also spent time chatting with us all, which was wonderful, considering the number of VIPs waiting to adore him. He smiled at me and said 'How are you? I haven't seen you since you were on the telly!'.  The joy and self-esteem we gained from our Passion echoes on.

Sincere thanks to Harry and The Sixteen for giving us all the opportunity to hear such amazing music, and also for taking the trouble to meet us. This means the world to us. Thanks also to Streetwise for organising the trip. I heard one of our group say, 'it's brilliant - I thought this kind of music was just for posh people!'. Wonderful! 

Pictured: Anita with The Sixteen singer Jeremy Budd