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Attending a musical concert often can be an enjoyable experience. Sometimes even a thrilling experience. On occasion, a transformative experience.
Or, in the case of the East Carolina University Chamber Singers' performance of Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, a combination of all three.
As performed in the candlelit setting of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Greenville, the concert, which closed out the school year for students in the university's music program, was one of the finest choral presentations this reviewer has heard.
Rachmaninov wrote the work, commonly called Vespers, in 1915, partly to revive the musical richness of the Russian Orthodox Church (nine sections are based on earlier chant melodies) and partly to explore newer musical settings for chant-like material. He called his newer settings "conscious counterfeits." During the course of the work, one can hear what sound like folk melodies in addition to more traditional liturgical chants.
For the Greenville concert, the 15-section piece, which lasts more than an hour, was sung a cappella without soloists in original Church Slavonic, and not once did the quality of choral musicianship fade or diminish. From the bold, assertive opening ("Come let us worship") through the familiar "Blessed Is the Man," with its distinctive five-syllable "alleluyias," to the miniature Znamenny chants near the end, the singers under the expert direction of Daniel Bara retained complete control over the complex and demanding material.
The scoring ranges from four-part to 11-part harmoy, to be presented in a wide variety of vocal dynamics and mood, from soft-as-a-whisper and somber to emphatic and joyful. The softest parts were beautiful, shimmering; the fortissimo and crescendo phrases rose magnificently in the chancel of the sanctuary to the ceiling and seemed to hang suspended as a dense cloud or musical sound. The voices blended superbly, even on the longest passages (these young singers certainly have mastered the art of staggered breathing), and all four major voice parts could be heard clearly throughout.
Although there were no soloists, special mention should be made of basses T.J. McNair and Lemuel Stanley, whose lowest of the low notes added such an impressive foundation to the performance. The sound of such low notes, and always on pitch, gave an added dimension to the singing.
So, too, can the sopranos be cited for adding a distinctive luster to the sound. Several sections of the Vespers depended heavily on tenors and altos introducing a theme and carrying that theme on at length, and the sopranos supplied a necessarily bright — and at times angelic — vocal layer over the rest of the material. The two inner parts carried off these sections quite well, and, needless to say, the Chamber Singers are blessed with a fine bass and baritone section, which is absolutely essential for a successful performance of Russian music of this kind.
This performance provided yet another example of the considerable vocal talent to be found in the ECU music program. As demonstrated on the Chamber Singers' compact disc last winter, the 42 young singers show a remarkable maturity of vocal sound and musical confidence and discipline so necessary for a work of this kind.
Bara said this performance was being recorded, and one can hope that perhaps this could become the Chamber Singers' next compact disc. A better performance would be hard to imagine.
The April 27 performance was dedicated to the memory of James Rees, a longtime friend of classical music in eastern and central North Carolina and a longtime advocate of choral music and the music of Rachmaninov. Members of the Chamber Singers performed the Vespers for Rees in private in mid-April a few days before his death in Greenville.