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Q: When is an all-night vigil not considered vespers?
A: When Rachmaninoff''s in charge.
The Choral Society of Durham, singing in places other than Duke Chapel this season due to ongoing restorations there, planned its late February all-Rachmaninoff program for two separate venues: Durham's First Presbyterian Church and, on February 28, Chapel Hill's University United Methodist Church. That the chorus was not in the Chapel meant that area music lovers had a rare opportunity to hear one of the Russian master's greatest works without the excessive reverberation that generally clouds this outstanding ensemble's performances on West Campus. The acoustics at First Presbyterian seemed ideally resonant.
The work under discussion is the All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, one of Rachmaninoff's two large-scale Russian Orthodox settings, the other being the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31. The Vigil is sometimes called "Vespers," but the word fits only loosely, for the piece includes music for vespers and matins and additional settings, specifically of the Ave Maria, the Magnificat, and several hymns, coming to a grand total of 15 parts. When given in a church or cathedral as part of a religious service, these numbers would be interspersed with readings, prayers, and more, most likely chanted by the priests or other officiants. Bear in mind that in most Orthodox churches, the congregants stand, and you may begin to imagine what a big deal this can be for the faithful.
But the composer considered it a concert work, and it's in that form that we have heard it this time, starting at First Presbyterian.
The soloists have little to do. Mezzo-soprano Jami Rhodes came all the way from ECU for her short contribution to "Bless the Lord, O my soul"; from her very first notes it was apparent that the trip was more than worthwhile. The other soloist appears in comparably brief lines in three numbers (one is only a single phrase); Wade Henderson, a regional treasure often heard in leading tenor roles, did those honors and handsomely, too. But this is of course a choral work, and it was at once glorious and soul-stirring and, technically, consistently masterful. The choir put across the Church Slavonic convincingly, rendering the texts with precision and care (basing this comment on the transliterations provided in the program, alongside the translations). The ratio of women to men in this massive ensemble is 2:1, but almost never did the upper voices seem to dominate, and only rarely did there seem to be too few "Russian" basses of the profondo variety: they were there when needed and invariably present if not floor-rattling (and of course it's hard to rattle floors in solid old sanctuaries like First Presbyterian).
The complexity of the work may be seen in two of its longer component parts, the six-verse "Blessed art thou, O Lord" (heard immediately after the intermission), and the Magnificat, in four verses – both of these numbers include recurring refrains. In these and elsewhere from start to finish the choristers were always impressive and, often, awe-inspiring. The Doxology was a particular highlight but the performance was so fine overall it seems almost churlish to call out just one section as opposed to noting all 15.
The ever-watchful Rodney Wynkoop, an artistic treasure in his own right, sometimes referred to as the Triangle's choral czar (a singularly appropriate term in this context), managed the many strands of this a cappella musical tapestry with expert skill, eliciting an exceptional performance of the varied but always complex score, ostensibly for SATB chorus but often with subdivided sections resulting in eight (or more) lines proceeding simultaneously. This is music from the composer's heart – he wanted the Nunc dimittis sung at his funeral (but did not get it). It's not Rachmaninoff's typical fare, the Rachmaninoff of the concerti or the Rhapsody or the symphonies and tone poems. Music lovers who are unfamiliar with it owe it to themselves to hear it. People attending the second performance should arrive early enough to read Susan Dakin's fine program note on the score, largely reprinted from the last time the CSD sang this music.
When this masterpiece was last given in Durham, in 1998,* it formed the longish second part of two concerts prefaced by nine Russian and Ukrainian carols (mostly). This presentation of the Vigil all by itself made sense and allowed for the audience's full focus on one of the literature's most important liturgical works. Bravo to all concerned for delivering it so magnificently.
As noted, the program will be repeated on February 28, at UUMC, in Chapel Hill. For details, see the sidebar.
*With thanks to an eagle-eyed reader, let me correct this, since the last Durham performance was in 2007, by the Duke Chapel Choir. The Choral Society of Durham did however perform it, as noted, in December 1998.