in: Reviews

March 7, 2011

Rachmaninoff Vespers: B B Chorale Meets Challenge

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Rachmaninov’s Vespers present a great number of challenges not easily overcome by even some professional choruses, let alone the amateur community chorus. On March 5, Back Bay Chorale answered these challenges with an impressive performance at Boston’s beautiful Emmanuel Church, whose broad, expansive space provided an ideal acoustical setting for the work. The Chorale was led by Scott Allen Jarrett, who is currently in his eighth year with the organization; Jarrett also serves as the director music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. The chorus was joined by NEC graduate and Boston mainstay, tenor soloist Stefan Reed.

In their presentation of Rachmaninov’s most popular sacred work, the chorus showed a level of technical skill, control, and expressiveness far above their amateur status, with an equally impressive handling and sense of the Old Slavonic text, despite a small handful of technical bumps and bruises. Jarrett has clearly instilled a strong sense of ensemble discipline and awareness within the group, navigating the frequently treacherous waters of the composer’s unaccompanied settings (the use of instruments is strictly proscribed in the Russian Orthodox tradition). Certain moments within the performance did fall short of their expressive potential, however, and I believe the onus for this falls on the conductor, whose clear success in creating a strong sense of discipline within the group occasionally generated a rather “square” execution of Rachmaninov’s sweeping musical gestures. Per usual, Reed turned in a solid and moving performance, with a sweet and powerful sound which was perfectly suited to the literature.

Although not technically a part of the performance, it is worth noting that Harlow Robinson’s program notes were of a refreshing high quality (Robinson, an expert in Russian cultural studies, is presently on faculty in the history department of Northeastern University), giving an effective and accessible introduction to the Russian Orthodox musical tradition. The decision to print the vespers text in the original Old Slavonic in the program book, alongside the transliteration and translation of the text, also helped to give a culturally-informed feel to the performance.

The Vespers open with a call to worship (“Come, Let Us Worship”), in which the chorus offered strong dynamic and characteristic contrasts; this movement was also one of those in which, as mentioned above, Jarrett’s control of the ensemble created a restrained feel which resulted in the “square” execution of several moments when the music should have soared (particularly the final, climactic repetition of the opening melody). In general, however, the ensemble’s discipline served the Chorale well in the early choruses, particularly in the contrapuntal textures of “Blessed is the Man.” In a number of the early choruses, the group skillfully executed Rachmaninov’s long-breathed dynamic motions evenly and with a clear sense of their expressive meaning.

Soloist Stefan Reed was featured in two of the choruses, “Blessed Light” and “Let Now Your Servant Depart in Peace” (the latter, taken from the Gospel of Luke, is also known as “Simeon’s canticle,” and is also the textual source for the poetic Latin text “Nunc dimittis”). In both choruses, Reed’s voice sparkled over the chorus, giving an especially touching rendition of the latter selection. Although the ensemble’s balance with the soloist was nearly flawless, what was even more impressive was the ability of the chorus to move smoothly from background to foreground, even if only for a single phrase of text or music.

The ensemble’s execution of the composer’s sweeping gestures grew more impassioned in the closing choruses, creating a number very moving climaxes, particularly in the chorus on the resurrection (“Having Beheld the Resurrection”); this chorus also offered a very satisfying contrast between the men’s masculine proclamations and the women’s ethereal responses. The concert was closed with a hymn of praise (“To Thee, the Victorious Leader”), offering a rousing finish and the chorus in which the ensemble showed perhaps its highest level of passionate, climactic expression.

The performance was heartily applauded by the audience, for which the group gave an encore performance of the chorus “Rejoice, O Virgin,” the most commonly-excerpted selection from the Vespers. The choice was very gratifying, as this selection does not particularly display a chorus’s technical skill, but rather their expressive effectiveness and control. Showcasing this artistic aspect (which is often among the weaker traits of a volunteer musical group) illustrated one of the reasons that the Bay Back Chorale is able to execute such a challenging work so successfully.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

4 Comments

  1. As a singer in the tenor section of the Back Bay Chorale, I want to thank Mr. Schwindt for reviewing our concert, and the BMI for publishing his review. It is important to me, and I think to the Chorale, that Boston’s muscial cognoscenti acknowledge our presence in the musical landscape and the work that we do. It is doubly gratifying when the reviews are positive.
    Thanks again for attending and reviewing.

    Comment by Brian Smith — March 7, 2011 at 11:31 am

  2. I sing with the Chorale as well (alto II), and would like echo Brian’s thanks. Especially since we will be performing this piece again in two weeks (3/19 in Portland, ME), the review is both very rewarding to read and very helpful as we prepare for our second performance.

    Comment by Rikki Tracy — March 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm

  3. While the Emmanuel Church acoustics were perfect for this performance, the size of the Chorale tucked into the altar/solea area made it impossible for most of the audience to see all the singers. I heard the tenor, but did not see him until the applause. This had the benefit of focusing the audience on sound, not sight. And perhaps it befits the mysterium of Eastern liturgy. On the other hand, I never felt like my applause and gratitude at the end reached the three quarters of the singers I never saw. On the other hand, they might then have wondered why I had tears in my eyes.
    Square means different things. If I am right about the reviewer’s sense of “squareness” in this performance, I might disagree on the grounds that the piece balances a fairly rigid tradition in that ancient musical form with Rachmaninov’s modern sensibilities. Perhaps the reviewer’s educated ear did not welcome the more obvious contrast of old and new forms which my less-informed ears appreciated. I certainly appreciated the review as much as the informative program notes and multilingual libretto.

    Comment by Rick Rayfield — March 8, 2011 at 2:51 pm

  4. Thank you so much for your comments everyone; the concert was a very enjoyable event!

    Rick: My comment regarding “squareness” is related to the conductor’s tendency to keep an unchanging tempo at moments when I believe that the composer’s sweeping melodic gestures call for a “modern” shot of dramatic rubato. Such artistic tendencies could also be interpreted as in keeping with the znameny chant style, which in St. Petersburg style in the early 20th century (i.e. Rachminonov’s professional “home base” during the time that he wrote the Vespers) featured a highly-elastic performance style that would often swell to a very strong, masculine style (see the writings of Vladimir Morosan for a solid introduction to this musical history), a style which strongly contrasts with the light and “feminine” style of chant recitation that has become the norm for the performance of Western chant, thanks in large part to the recordings of the Solemnes monks as well as the popular “Chant” albums of the early 90s.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — March 8, 2011 at 6:59 pm

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