Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of Portland Symphonic Choir's performance of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil

Guest review by Phillip Ayers

On a somewhat rainy Sunday afternoon (October 30), a sell-out crowd entered the rather obscure premises of the Adrianna Hill Grand Ballroom in downtown Portland. This hall, never mentioned in the printed program, proved to be, if not the best place for this performance, then certainly an interesting one, causing some whom this reviewer spoke with to remark "Well, it's a 'first'!" The Portland Symphonic Choir has performed Sergei Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil both at St. Mary's Cathedral and St. Mary's Church in Mount Angel, each church with far better acoustics than we experienced this weekend.

As of last season, the choir is performing in various venues around town, where before St. Mary's Cathedral provided space for most of the choir's concerts. Still, it was a grand performance in that small, tight, non-airy space (windows were opened before Sunday's performance, probably to avoid what had happened the night before when a singer fainted). This reviewer sat in the balcony, dimly lighted and draped with some sort of netting, next to a bar. Surrounding me were concert-goers sipping glasses of wine. Whether or not this is conducive to attentive and active listening to such an important, profoundly moving work of music is up for grabs. One could wax cynical here, but I digress ….

To the music itself, then. No effort is spent to realize, as the person next to me did as she was hearing this for the very first time, that this is a choral work that can move one to tears if open to its power to enchant (and I'm not speaking only of the Znammenny, Kiev, or Greek chants!) and move one emotionally. Tears came right away, as I've sung this twice with the choir when I was a member in my previous life. This music simply "hits you squarely" right away with a wonderful "call to worship" (in Reformed parlance): Steven Zopfi, the choir's Artistic Director and author of the full and excellent program notes and analyses, wrote that each invocation of this "call" begins with the marmoreal sound of full, loud chorus. I had to look up marmoreal in a dictionary when I got home: it comes from the Latin for "marble." So, marble-like sound? Yes, and marble floors in the hall would have resounded with that rich sound far better than wood did.

This opening movement, as well as much of the whole work, requires the choir's "wall of sound," about which I have written in every review of the choir's performances that I've been privileged to hear and to review. Sadly, I did not perceive that "wall" Sunday afternoon, as much as before when in larger performance venues. Still, the tears came to my eyes and I settled in for the next hour and a half (including an intermission, which I found totally redundant and distracting. I suppose there had to be an interval to allow people have a respite and to guzzle more wine).

Guest mezzo-soprano, Ruth Ginell Heald, performed her solos in front of the choir, entering from the side. In the second movement, "Bless the Lord, O My Soul," she was a bit overpowered by the chorus. At times, the final syllable in the "Alleluiyas" was too much, and accuracy in pronunciation and attacks was lacking at times in this movement. Outside noise, through the open windows behind the choir, was distracting as well; but we weren't feeling stuffy either, which was probably a good thing.

In the fourth movement "Gladsome Light," the Phos Hilaron at Vespers or Evensong/ Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition, was gloriously sung. Tenor Daniel Morrill, a member of the choir's tenor section, shone here, as well as his other work in the concert. It is surprising and delighting to read in his biography in the program that he had his first voice lesson six years ago and became a paid staff singer with the choir two years later. He possesses a fine instrument and presence. In this particular movement, he stayed at his place in the choir, moving to the front later on. This movement is one the oldest hymn-texts in Christian liturgy and it was sung to Kiev melody. Rachmaninoff indulged in a departure from "traditional" sounds here, as noted by Zopfi in his notes.

The following movement, with the text known to Western Christians as the Nunc Dimmitis, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace" - Simeon's song as the Savior was presented in the Temple. In Old Slavonic it works just as well as the Latin or the English, in fact more authentically, in the Kiev melody. The tenor soloist again provided a touching, lovely ambiance to this canticle. This part ends with the lowest note in the Vespers: a B-flat below low C; it was executed subtly and well by a few basses, not groaned out as is often the case in other performances. I told a bass friend after the performance that it was as though I was seated at the table of a lovely gourmet meal, tasting a subtle, rich morsel!

"Rejoice, O Virgin," as Zopfi notes is the quietest of the five numbers that form the Vespers portion of the vigil liturgy. It is a hymn to the Virgin Mary, named in Orthodoxy, Theotokos, or God-Bearer. And it could have been even more quietly than it was. Tenor and alto sectional "solos" were touching, again moving me to tears as they were so carefully and subtly executed.

"Six Psalms," the seventh movement, is the Western Gloria in excelsis, or song of the angels at the birth of Jesus. The pealing Slavas (or "Glories") from the choir are sung to harmonies which would have seemed suspiciously modern in 1915, the year of composition, as Zopfi notes in his commentary.

If tempted to sleep during the quieter movements, the eighth would awaken the deepest sleeper. Khvalite imya, gospodne. Alliluiya! it begins: "Praise[Laud] ye the name of the Lord, Alleluia!" This movement is part of Matins, a night Office of prayer, anticipating dawn. Here again was Znamenny chant in bold octaves, sung by basses and altos while tenors and sopranos accompany it. The driving rhythms are bold and hold attention, riveting the listener.

The Resurrection of Christ from the dead is central to Orthodox Christianity and it is obviously declaimed in the ninth movement, "Blessed Art Thou O Lord." It is a lively narration, using various forces of the full chorus and occasional tenor solo. The mood-change with Zelo rano mironositsy techakhu (Very early came the myrrh-bearing women) is striking and one can almost envision the angel at the tomb saying "The time of your mourning is past; do not lament any more, but go and tell the apostles that he is risen." The wonderful folk-like chant Svyat, syvat, syvat, yesi Gospodi. I nyne, I priso, I vo veki vekov, Amin' (Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Sabaoth …) is sung by the men, joyfully and strongly.

Men and women alternate in verses of the tenth movement, a hymn in praise of the resurrection. Unison and harmonic singing alternate as well; it ends in a blast of sound with a coda that is to die for, Smertiyu smert' razrushi (Conquering death by death)! This is followed by what the Western Church calls Magnificat (My soul magnifies the Lord), with basses singing the melody while the scherzo-like refrains are sung by the sopranos, altos and tenors. Rachmaninoff carefully harmonized each refrain differently. There were some small intonation problems here, maybe caused by fatigue or over-concentration.

The longest and most complex movement in the liturgy followed, Slava v vyshnikh Bogu (Glory be to God on high), the Western Gloria in excelsis with added prayers at is end. There is a marvelous segue from the Gloria to the prayers that contain portions of what Western Christians know as portions of the Te Deum (We praise Thee, O God), "Let thy merciful kindness, O Lord, be upon us, as our trust is in Thee"). Fragments of Psalms 119 and 90 close this movement, followed by the familiar Trisagion (Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal One, have mercy on us) with a Gloria Patri. Nothing but pure, unadulterated praise here!

Three hymns close out the work, the first two dealing with the resurrection and the last with hymning the Virgin. The fourteenth movement is so serene that the listener craves more of it, and the whole work closes with a jolly Greek chant melody, a hymn to the Theotokos, the God-Bearer, "Heaven-elected chieftain of triumphant hosts … thou who bearest God!" This movement really belonged to the sopranos, who shone like stars, drawing this heavenly work to its close.

Even with a few "wobbly" intonations, quickly righted, the general discomfort in that setting, the wine-swilling, and the not-so-present-as-before Wall of Sound, I gladly stood with the rest of the audience in applause and bravi, in joyful acclamation and thanksgiving for the choir's performance. Much goes into performing this work: careful pronunciation of the Old Slavonic liturgical language - not pronounced like modern Russian; attention to so many nuances in vocal technique; and the peculiar exposure of a non-accompanied lengthy piece of music. Gleefully greeting some dear and old friends who persevere in the choir directed by one of the best choral directors, Steven Zopfi, my afternoon drew to a brilliant close. What a joy it is to listen to PSC! And you can, over and over, by purchasing the CD that the choir produced in 2008!

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