Review of Seattle Choral Company singing Rachmaninov’s All-Night-Vigil

Review of the June 3rd 2011 performance of the All-Night-Vigil by the Seattle Choral Company

Before the Vigil, the SCC performed 4 pieces: Lumina Lina by Diaconescu, Eonia by Tavener, and two of the Drei Geistliche Gesänge (3 spiritual songs) by Schnittke. Starting with these was a brilliant programing move by the SCC Artistic Director in that it gave a lower intensity easing into the concert for both singers and audience. Of these pieces I must comment on the Lumina Lina. Mircea Diasconesu is a Romanian composer of Orthodox music. His setting of Lumina Lina, based both on the Romanian text and the Greek chant “Phos Hilaron” was one of the best settings of this ancient chant that I’ve heard. Thank you Freddie Coleman for bringing this to our attention. Something must also be said about the notes in the program which helped created a context of how the All-Night-Vigil is served as a worship service.

The All-Night-Vigil started with a wonderful and warm sound at mp. When the Choir got louder the treble voices tended to overpower the rest of the choir, there were some pitch problems in Psalm 103. These I attribute to “nerves”. Once the warmth of the Alto section singing the chant over the beautifully painted canvass of the men’s voices took over, the choir settled down for a good concert. It is obvious that the director worked a lot with balance, blend, and intonation in preparing the choir. In these aspects the choir excelled. What was missing in the Vespers section was the natural accents of the text. This is often a problem when a choir that is not used to Slavonic attempts the Vigil. I must give Kudos to the Octavists (the very low Basso Profundi) who performed well for most of the Vigil.

The tempo of the Nyne Otpushchayesi (Now dismiss Thy servant) was a bit on the fast side. St. Simeon is declaring that his life is fulfilled in meeting Christ in the Temple. Rakhmaninov uses choral effects that echo the slow ringing of bells in a funeral (This was his favourite composition; indeed he wanted this piece sung at his funeral; sadly that did not happen). At a faster tempo, the slow bell effect gets lost. Perhaps this was due to the late substitution of Tenor soloist Justin Ferris for the ailing Chris McCafferty. Justin’s voice is young and has a sweet quality to it. In a few years he will have the maturity to sing this stronger. Justin did an able job of filling in on the solo. The Octavists did a good job of delivering their first low Bb of the afternoon.

After intermission the Choir started the Matin’s section. Slava v’Vishn’ikh Bog (Glory to God in the Highest). Again the blend and balance were very good. Again the natural accents of the text are missing. In first piece of the Matins section, Rakhmaninov sets a section of text that is usually read by an ordained reader from the middle of the nave before he reads the 6 Psalms of Matins. Rakhmaninov deliberately uses Bell changes typical of the beginning of a service. Without the strong accent on the word “Sláva” the bell effect does not communicate.

Kvalitye Imya Gospodnye (Praise the Name of the Lord) has the same attention to balance and blend, but no accents on the stressed syllables.

However, this changed on Blagosloven yes Gospodi (Blessed art Thou, O Lord) the Evlogitarion Angelski Sobor. Here the choir combined the careful balance and blend they had polished with textual accents that made the piece come to life in a way that I have seldom heard from a non-Russian choir. This and the piece following, Voskreseniye Khristov (Having seen the Resurrection of Christ) were performed as well as any Russian choir I have heard. The SCC made me cry with the beauty of their execution of these two movements. Bravo and thank you SCC.

The Velichit dusha moya  (Magnificat) started off with this same level of quality. By this time, mental fatigue was beginning to take the edge off. A mistake in the soprano entrance took away the confidence they started the piece with. The Octavists continued to deliver and phrased the last line very well.

The Great Glorification is the most difficult of the Vigil. The vocal demands as well as the large amount of text that goes by rather quickly make this a challenge for a non-Russian Choir. The SCC started well. There is a very exposed soli section for the Baritones, who performed well up to this point (Sedyai odesnuyu). I heard individual voices at this point instead of a unified sound. Towards the end of this piece the soprano section was showing signs of vocal fatigue. The choir held the piece together and finished strongly. Kudos to the alto section who performed marvelously.

The next 2 pieces, Rakhmaninov gives the choir a break. It is a straight forward setting of the Znamenny Chant. On Dnes Spasniye (Today Salvation comes to the world) the choir took advantage of this and regrouped. On Voskres iz groba (Thou didst rise from the tomb) the fatigue started to set in on most of the sections except the altos.

Here I must criticize the Composer. The last piece Vzbannoy Voyevodye (Victorious Leader) is the least chant-like of all the works of the Vigil. It is more operatic; and, it is at the end. At this point, even the Sveshnikov choir sounds tired as they sing it. Only the alto section sounded like they had more to give at this point.

On the whole this was a marvelous performance. The two pieces I mentioned above (#9 and #10) were beyond marvelous. The SCC has every right to be proud of what they have accomplished.

Here is a Link to a Lecture on Rakhmaninov’s All-Night-Vigil given by Dr. Vladimir Morosan (who published the score that SCC used for this concert.

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