Duke Chapel was nearly full on this Sunday afternoon for the performance of two wonderful and moving services of worship sung by the Duke Chapel Choir and the Duke Chorale. The choruses blended marvelously in the awesome acoustics of the chapel and left glorious sounds resounding from narthex to nave through the arched beams and lingering in the minds and hearts of the audience. It was just six days after the Virginia Tech tragedy (thirty-three lives lost at the hand of a lone gunman), and the music planned for this event was unintentionally necessary.
The program began with Joseph Achron’s Service for Sabbath Evening. Achron was born in Lithuania in 1886 and moved with his family to Warsaw at age five. By age seven he gave his first public concert as a celebrated child prodigy violinist. After studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, he lived in Russia until 1922 and arrived in New York in 1925. He died in Los Angeles in 1943. Arnold Schönberg referred to him as “one of the most underestimated of modern composers.” He brought a wide range of cosmopolitan skills to the composition of his Sabbath Evening Service, composed for Temple Emanu-El in New York in 1930.
For this performance, the choirs were joined by soprano soloist Patricia Donnelly Philipps and chapel organist David Arcus. Allan Friedman, Assistant Conductor of the Duke Chapel Choir, the Duke Vespers Ensemble and the Duke Divinity School Choir, guided the performance with a knowledgeable and confident command.
The work, sung in Hebrew, begins with a hymn of praise in which the soloist and the choirs dialogue the rapturous words of Psalm 92. After the soloist sings, “Though the wicked may blossom, in the end, they will be destroyed forever,” the choir virtually explodes with the acclamation: “But Thou are exalted, O Lord, for all time.” It was a glorious moment. After a brief solo exhorting "Praise," we heard the "Sh’ma Yisroel" (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”). This is the basic statement of faith of Jews everywhere. Sections 4, “Who is like Thee,” and 5, “The covenant of Shabbat,” are from Exodus and proclaim the deliverance from bondage and the covenant between God and his people. Sections 6 and 7 are sung in English. “May the words” was one of the most moving and soul-searching segments of the Service sung by the choirs in rich harmonic tones with meaning and conviction. The last two sections were sung in Hebrew,reaffirming the oneness of God and ending with the phrase: “The Lord is with me; I will not fear.”
We are indebted to Friedman for providing us with the opportunity to hear this outstanding work so powerfully performed. Donnelly Philipps was superb in the demanding soprano solos and Arcus was the supportive and flawless organist we have come to expect and accept.
With some brief shuffling around of the choirs, Rodney Wynkoop took the podium and bass Matt Fray chanted the Introit to Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, one of the transcendent miracles of 20th century choral literature. It is sung in old Slavic Russian, entirely without accompaniment. This is at least the third or fourth time Wynkoop has conducted the Vespers including excerpts and segments of it on other occasions. His passion for and knowledge of this masterpiece were apparent in every phrase, every note, and every word the chorus sung.
After the Introit and a very brief pause, the chorus" and then “Come, let us worship” based on Psalm 95:6; tears welled up in my eyes at the vibrant sound of the opening phrase. Like incense rising in a cathedral, the music immediately lifts you to a different place. And then the second anthem, featuring mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer, was almost unbearably beautiful. In “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” Beer’s powerful voice was deep and rich in the lower range while the chorus provided harmonies and snatches of melody through which one might glimpse heaven itself. It struck me that though this whole piece is incredible legato, each phrase was well defined and shaped with clean precision. The third anthem, "Blessed is the man," continues in this same vein and reaches a glorious climax with repetitions of "Al-le-lu-i-a" only to increase intensity by gradually getting softer and ending with a whisper.
Tenor Wade Henderson sang the solo in the traditional Russian hymn “Gladsome Light” with a crystalline tone that was about as otherworldly as you can get. Simeon’s song, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace” begins softly (Rachmaninov marks the beginning with a triple pianissimo, three Ps), rises as the others like incense, and then falls at the end to a whisper, with the incredible basses slowly descending a B flat minor scale all the way down to the tonic below the bass staff. Next comes “Rejoice, O Virgin” (often mistranslated or interpreted as "Ave Maria"). The chorus sings a melody, innocent and sweet. Then as altos divide and start what may be considered a second verse of this gorgeous melody, the sopranos and tenors, one dynamic softer, raise an even more heavenly melody which seems to ascend to impossible intensity when the basses join the altos in a dramatic full-voiced climax. In turn, it settles in an awe-inspiring meditative calm reflecting on Mary’s role: “Thou hast borne the Savior of our souls.”
Much of this music sounds deceptively simple and clear cut, yet it is a demanding challenge with keys and time signatures changing frequently and melodies wafting across bar lines without any regard for them at all. It is Rachmaninov's great gift to sustain these long melodic lines with skill and captivating intensity. The All-Night Vigil includes "Vespers" and "Matins" with a total of fifteen anthems in all. I felt the chorus was beginning to feel some fatigue toward the end but came to life with the vigorous and dynamic closing section, "To Thee, the victorious Leader."
This was an afternoon of intense and glorious sounds. Whether one is religious or not, these ancient texts and this powerfully moving music speak to something very deep within us as human beings in a world we sometimes do not understand but that beckons us to a grandeur that is beyond ourselves.