Review of Capella Romana – Divine Liturgy of Rachmaninov

Review Capella Romana performance of Rakhmaninov Divine Liturgy

Saturday Jan 12 2013 at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in West Seattle

 

The Church is very soprano friendly and the Sopranos over sang the hall on “Priiditye Poklonimsya (Come let us worship)”.

The announced roster of singers was light one bass and one basso profundo according to Pavel Chesnokov’s “The Choir and how to direct it” (page 13. the administrator of Capella Romana was informed of this lightness in casting the bass part back last year when they did the All-Night-Vigil). In spite of being additionally down 3 members due to the flu that is going around afflicting us all, the Chamber Choir more than filled the venue with the sound of their voices.

The tempi that Alexander Lingas chose showed a sensitivity to how the pieces functioned inside the Liturgy. What was remarkable in the year since the Capella Romano brought us the All-Night Vigil, as they sang the Divine Liturgy attention was given to the accented parts of the words. This made it sound much more authentic as if they were all native to singing Slavonic.

The long crescendi in places such as Priiditye Poklonimsya (going from pp to ff over 6 measures), “Otche Nash (Lord’s Prayer),” were very well executed. The Capella Romana did the split choir versions of “Vo Tsarstviye Tvoye (Beatitudes).”

The Troparion of Theophany needed more work on the pronunciation of the text. But to be fair, this is a tongue twister even for native Russian speakers.

The pitch was good for the first half suffering only in the Augmented Litany.

Coming back from intermission, the choir was beginning to sound fatigued. The pitch sagged on the Symbol of Faith leaving the low Bassos a very difficult final note. It was written as a low Bb, but by the time it came to be sung it was well below that.

The magic moment was “Yedin Svyat’ (One is Holy)” as the Chalice and Diskos are elevated. If there is a time to have a magic moment, that is most assuredly the time to have it.

Except for a few mispronunciations of the Deacon and Priest’s part (Priest’s parts were sung by Dr. Lingas due to sickness of John Boyer, and he had little time to prepare), this performance was the best I’ve heard from a non-Russian Choir. I do hope the Capella Romana plans to record it once they are all healthy.

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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.

http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/the_saint_katherine_college_forum/the_musical_sources_of_rachmaninoffs_all_night_vigil

Review of Capella Romana’s Concert of Rachmaninov’s All-Night-Vigil

Capella Romana sings Rachmaninov All-Night-Vigil

Concert on January 7 2012

On olde calendar Christmas (Jan 7) Capella Romana performed the All-Night-Vigil at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. Capella Romana is a Chamber choir that beefed up its bass section for this concert. According to Chesnokov’s book on choral directing they should have had an additional bass and octavist to balance the sound (page 13). The octavist they did have did a magnificent job. When the choir went flat in the Velichit Dush (Magnificat) #11 the octavist were still able to sing a clear Low Bb (which by that time had become a Low A) and tune it immaculately. The choir gave a spirited performance which was augmented by including some of the other parts of the All-Night-Vigil that Rakhmaninov did not set. They included pieces by other Russian Masters that gave a sense of the context of the Vigil as a worship service. For this effort I must applaud the Capella Romana.

Review of Recordings of the Rachmaninov All-Night-Vigil

 

A Review of Recordings  of the Rakhmaninov All-Night-Vigil.

 

The oldest available recording of the All-Night-Vigil is by the State Russian Academic Choir conducted by Alexander Sveshnikov. It was first recorded in 1965 by Melodiya, but not widely available. In 1973 they re-recorded this for the centennial of Rakhmaniov’s birth. Because of anti-religious ideology, it was mainly exported outside the former Soviet Union. Recently the 1965 recording was remastered and has been re-released.

Sveshnikov was a student of Chesnokov who was last conductor of the Moscow Synod Choir that premiered the All Night Vigil. Both Rakhmaninov and Chesnokov were students of Stepen Smolensky (Rakhmaninov dedicated the All-Night Vigil to Stepan Smolensky).

This makes Sveshnikov the musical “grandson” of Nikolai Danilin, who premiered the work.

The Svesnikov recordings feature lush bass and octavist that make the recordings very satisfying. When they go flat, they go flat together. A valid criticism of the recordings is that when syllables have a strong accent due to the text that both soloists and choir will scoop the pitch. While some may think this to be idiomatic, there is no reason why such strong accents could not be accomplished without bending the pitch. Additionally the Choir sounds vocally fatigued for the last 3 pieces, and the octavist that goes down to a low G1 at the end #14 sounds creaky, crickety and fried.

The tempos in the 1965 reading are a bit quicker; the transparency of the vocal parts is clearer. The quality of the recording engineering and the subtleties of shaping and the blend are better in the 1973 recording.

The attention to detail, the attention to intonation and overtones to the point where, at points, it sounds as if instruments were accompanying them playing notes that no one is actually singing, and that it is produced by a musical grandson of the original make these must listen to.

 

In 1986 the USSR Minster of Culture Chamber Choir under the direction of Valeri Polyansky recorded the All-Night-Vigil in Dormition Cathedral (also a Melodiya recording). The recording is every bit as respectable as the Svesnikov recording. For the most part they avoid the scooping that afflicts the Sveshnikov recordings. The tempos are also a bit livelier. For a chamber choir it is a good rendering. The intonation is, on the whole, good. A notable exception is at the beginning of #9 Blagosloven yesi Gospodi (Blessed art Thou O Lord/ Evlogitarion/ Angelski Sobor) when the altos come in on the Bb, they take a good second to find the pitch. While the recording is good, one misses the sound of a full choir.

Mstislav Rostropovich recorded the All-Night-Vigil with the Choral Arts Society of Washington in 1987 on the Erato label. The tempi are bold and energetic, making for a spirited performance. The recording suffers a light bass section.

Robert Shaw recorded the Vigil with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers in 1989 for Telarc. The intonation is beyond immaculate, the blend is wonderful. The recording has a feeling of “something missing”. What is missing is that the normal accents that are part of the Slavonic Text, that would not need to be notated as accented, are entirely missing. It is as if a very good french choir were singing that did not understand where the strong accents were required.

Recently (2010) the combined Church Choirs of Saratov recorded the Vigil, conducted by Svetlana Khakhalina. The recording was produced by the Eparchy of Saratov. The recording was done at Intercession Church in Saratov in Russia. This is a good recording of the Vigil. The balance between parts is very good and it has a transparency that is missing in the Sveshnikov recordings. It does have one draw-back. There is one Bass II (not an octavist) who is frequently off pitch just enough to draw attention to his voice.

Esoterics sing Schnittke – Chiaroscura

Review of Esoterics singing Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Chorus, Sunday February 20 2011 at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in West Seattle as part of their Chiaroscura program

The intonation was wonderful. The Russian was, with only a couple exceptions, clearly and cleanly enunciated. The choir sang it very well and movingly. A word needs to be said about the venue and how the choir handled it. Holy Rosary Church is very treble friendly. It would have been wondrous if the soprano’s could have subdued their sound a trifle. Their overtones often served to obscure the sound of the rest of the choir in this Church. I don’t know how they could accomplish this, however on notes that often spent a lot of time above a high C. My other comment about dynamics and this hall is that they tended to hit fortisISsimo rather often. It would have been wonderful if the composer, conductor and acoustics could have conspired to allow this to happen once or twice a movement. But as already noted singing that high that often (and after having sung high many times in the first half) is very difficult vocally.

After singing the first 3 poems ably, the Esoterics then took the fourth poem to greater heights of sensitivity to the vocal lines and text. I was very impressed. Bravo Esoterics; you did both yourselves and the composer’s work proud.

<standing ovation smilie>

Steve Ericson’s Tips for Singers (Part IV Blending and Phrasing

formerly at ChoirSinger.com – Blending the choir – part 1

Republished with permission

One of the best Basses I've ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

One of the best Basses I’ve ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

Many people who listen to our choir comment on how each section sounds like one voice. This is not by accident, or good luck, but is a tribute to the work our director puts in on fine-tuning the choir.

It takes a well-trained ear to match voices so they reinforce the sound he is after, and it is not something I could possibly hope to teach in a text article online. I can, however, offer some tips that will make your director’s job easier.

First and foremost is intonation. If you can’t sing in tune you will never achieve the blend that’s necessary for a top-notch choral sound. There are some excellent ear-training resources available. Check out your local college bookstore for the kinds of material being used by the school to train music students. But the most important part of intonation is active listening.

Active listening involves learning to hear your own voice when you sing, and recognizing the difference between what you hear in your head and what others hear. A tape-recorder is an excellent tool for discovering what your voice sounds like to others.

Once you can pick your own voice out, listen to the sound of your section. Are you producing notes that match exactly the pitch of your section? You should not hear any ‘beats’ or waves of sound. Those indicate a difference in the pitch.

Another, often neglected, component of singing in tune and blending the sound is vowel alignment. By that I mean singing exactly the same vowel sound that everyone else in the choir is singing when you sing the same text. It is easy to hear the effect of different vowel sounds if you sing vastly different vowels, for example some people singing an EEEE sound while others sing an OOOO on the same pitch. That’s because the shape of the vowel alters the overtones of the pitch, and affect the intonation. What is not so obvious is that the SAME problem with intonation exists when you have two different versions of AH going on at the same time.

This is just the beginning of the problems a choir faces with blending. Next article I’ll discuss some of the common solutions, and which ones are better than others.

ChoirSinger.com – Blending the choir – part 2

Achieving a good choral sound can be a challenge, particularly in an amateur choir. Many of the voices are underdeveloped, or the singers have had little formal training since leaving school, and it can be somewhat like herding cats to get the choir to sound like an ensemble.

Many choir directors try to accomplish this by asking the singers to use a more breathy tone. This foggy sound seems like it would blend more easily, partly because nobody can actually hear what the sound is. Of course, that approach is wrong for a number of reasons, including possible damage to the voices of the singers.

A better approach, though perhaps more difficult, is to concentrate on producing a mature vocal sound. A sound that is focused and full of resonance. This requires more effort on the part of the singers, but the rewards are well worth it.

Once the singers start using their whole voices you begin to hear the rich overtones that comprise a good choral sound. When you combine the mature sound with the proper vowel alignment as discussed in the previous article you can accomplish wonderful things with a choir, and the sound will cut through even a large orchestra such as you would find with a work like Carmina Burana or Verdi’s Requiem.

The remarkable thing to many people is that the mature choral sound can be quite successful doing contemplative a capella works like those of Palestrina, too. Of course, some works call for a less turbulent sound (less vibrato), but that does not mean less intensity. A choir should sound the same at pianissimo as it does at fortissimo, only softer. Think of it like this: when you hear a work coming from the next room, then walk into the room and realize it is much louder than you thought. Same group, same music, different volume level.

This is important. It is more difficult to sing quietly because you have to work harder to maintain the support, yet without the support the pitch will not hold.

Here is another idea. Some voices should not be placed together. Either because they reinforce each other too much, or because they cancel each other out. A good choir director can hear this, and will often take steps to separate such voices. By the same token there are some voices that should be placed together. These voices compliment each other and form a more complete sound together than separately. Remember, if your choir director moves you around and pairs you up with someone else this is usually the reason (unless of course you are a talker and disrupt the rehearsals – but a good director would just encourage you to drop out in that case…).

ChoirSinger.com – Make it Mean Something

Have you ever gone to a choir concert that seemed uninspired and lifeless? Chances are you have, even if the sound was well blended and perfectly on pitch. Today we’re going to take a look at another part of the whole puzzle – the text.

As a singer the music you perform is more than just notes, tempos and dynamics. You have the added dimension of text to deal with. This adds a whole new set of concerns for phrasing the music, because you have to deal with more than just the melodic line. Text has meaning, and unless that meaning comes through you might as well sing the whole thing on LA.

Putting the meaning in the music is naturally easier if the music is in your language. For most of us reading this article that language is English. We are able to give the words their proper emphasis, and shape the phrases, because we understand what we are singing. If you sing in a small church choir that may be all you need to remember from week to week. You sing mostly hymn arrangements or other songs that speak to the text of the sermon, and you usually sing it with an understanding of what is being said. But what about foreign languages?

If you sing in a symphonic choir, or a non-church community chorus, you have probably sung songs in Latin and German. Possibly French or Spanish, and if you have an adventurous director, maybe even Russian. Carmina Burana is a very popular piece which uses Latin and an obscure language known as Frankish in some of its movements. So how do you convey the same level of meaning to your listeners that you do when you’re singing in your native tongue?

It would be great if we could all learn to speak five or six languages. That isn’t likely to happen, though, so we have to look for some clues in the music itself.

Much of the music you will do in other languages was written to be sung in those languages, and the composers did a lot of the work for you. The pulse of the music is a good clue about where most of the syllabic stress belongs (though not always). You should also look for hints in the way the text is broken up in your music. Most music publishers put dashes between the syllables of a word that is broken up by several notes, and they leave space between words. The punctuation can give you a sense of the phrasing – periods at the end of sentences, etc.

Some publishers now even help by marking the stressed syllables in the text, either by underlining the stressed syllables, by MAKing the stressed SYLLable all caps, or by other obvious markings.

Careful attention to such details can make a huge difference in the music. Choirs who successfully master this aspect of choral singing tend to stand out from the crowd, and their audiences will keep coming back for more.

Steve Ericson’s Tips For Singers (Part III How to have a productive rehearsal)

formerly at ChoirSinger.com – How to have a productive rehearsal

Republished with permission

One of the best Basses I've ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

One of the best Basses I’ve ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

If you have been singing very long at all you have experienced at least one rehearsal which frustrated you because of its lack of accomplishment. Today we’re going to take a look at what it takes to have a productive rehearsal – a necessity for producing an excellent concert.

Be on time. One of the things that will cut into the productivity of a scheduled rehearsal is late arrivals. If your rehearsal starts at 7:00, be in your seat at 7, not out parking the car, or talking to your friends. Arrive early enough to handle all the socializing before the rehearsal.

Warm up ahead of time. You can start your warm-ups early by humming or singing gently in the car on the way to rehearsal. If everyone in the choir arrived with warm voices the group warm-ups can focus more on the ensemble sound and intonation drills rather than shaking the road dust out of everyone’s throats.

Respect the other sections. If the director has to take a few minutes to work with one of the sections, it is not an excuse for you to start talking to your neighbor. That disrupts the rehearsal and makes it hard for the section that’s getting the extra work to accomplish what needs to be done. Even more important: don’t hum your part while another section is being rehearsed. If the other section wasn’t having trouble with the part your director wouldn’t be wasting rehearsal time on it. Don’t make it even harder.

Be prepared. No, I’m not talking Boy Scouts here. I’m talking about practicing between rehearsals. The night you get your music it’s OK to struggle a bit with notes and text, especially if you’ve never seen the piece before, but the next rehearsal you have the work should be learned, at least as far as the notes and words. Let the director concentrate on musical interpretation as early in the rehearsal schedule as possible. Your concert will sound better for it. Invest the time outside rehearsal and reap the dividends in performance.

Be clean. OK, can we get personal here for a minute? If you work a physical job that leaves you sweaty at the end of the day, go home and take a shower before you go to choir. And leave off the perfume, after-shave, cologne, or other scents. There are people with allergies to such things, and chemical allergies are one thing you can’t really get good treatment for. If you smoke, your clothes stink. You can’t smell it because your nose is half dead, but the people around you certainly can. Shower before rehearsal, put on clean clothes, and don’t light up again until after you are headed home. Better still, quit.

Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll be amazed at how much more productive your choral experience becomes. Who knows? You may even find yourself starting to do more challenging music as a result.