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Stunning Rachmaninoff St. John Liturgy


Having participated in a concert of selections from Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” with Trinity Church Boston a number of years ago, my expectations were high for an inspiring evening of choral music from Coro Allegro, directed by Hodgkins – and I was not in the least disappointed.

In my sonorously stimulated imagination, if I could have invited anyone, living or dead, to sit next to me under the richly romantic and acoustically vibrant interior of the Church of the Covenant in Boston, it would be the soul of Herr Bach – gasping and marveling at the mystical possibilities of dissonance in a post-Brahmsian homophony as opposed to counterpoint – supported by the sub-earthly rumble of extended bass and the occasional driving syncopation of dances, not of the French court, but joyously and proudly drawn from the Russian folksongs and rhythms of the composer’s childhood homeland. I could not help but imagine the old German master empathically sympathizing with the spiritually boundless reverence invoked by the harmonic ingenuity of these sacred choral works passionately forged upon the roots of Eastern Orthodox liturgical tradition. And through Coro Allegro’s stunning interpretation, that reverence was profoundly transmitted through them to a deeply grateful audience.

Written as an a cappella piece following the dictates of the church, all reference of pitch was drawn from introductory bells succeeded by the chanting of Deacon Jason Villarreal, baritone, and/or Celebrant Taras Leschishin, tenor. Villarreal’s voice was a younger and lighter baritone singing the part of a basso profundo, but with good command of the Russian language and musical sensitivity. Leschishin’s powerful tenor voice was perfectly suited to capture both the Russian flavor of the language and the music.

When demonstrating this piece to a colleague on the piano, with his characteristically large hands grasping inhumanly wide intervals, goes an anecdote, Rachmaninoff received the complaint that finding basses that can make sufficient sound in a tessitura that low are “as rare as asparagus at Christmas.” Being that it is spring in Boston, there were apparently plenty of asparagus to go around, and the strong, youthful bass section of Coro Allegro’s team of excellent musicians was sufficiently powerful. Standing in for a traditional men and boys chorus was an adult choir with Anglican-style accuracy of intonation from the sopranos and altos; and although Rachmaninoff may have been influenced most directly by Tchaikovsky and other Russian contemporaries, it is aurally difficult to dismiss the artistic affinity he seemed to share with Brahms when writing treble choral parts. One of the highlights of the evening in this regard was the luminously and exquisitely sung Cherubic Hymn. In combination with a strong tenor section, the full choir was first introduced to us with a beautifully open chord – lulling, rocking, growing – and when finally breaking out into syncopation, the sound was glorious, ringing out a broad and color-rich orchestral spectrum that made the harmonic complexity of Rachmaninoff’s homophony sound like it effortlessly tuned itself.

Within the text and translations of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom were a number of recognizable English translations, including The Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, as well as the Beatitudes. Through the help of the program, any non-Russian but Anglican or Roman Catholic member of the audience could appreciate by memory these inspired settings, and by the looks of the choir members’ faces, empathize with what a pleasure they were to sing as well as professedly a pleasure for Rachmaninoff to compose.

Composing this piece had formerly eluded him, but after a long American tour, Rachmaninoff returned to Russia and to his uncle’s estate (which he inherited), homesick for his native land. Immersing himself in his own culture, he had a breakthrough and finished the composition in approximately three weeks, in 1910. Rachmaninoff wrote:

I have been thinking about the Liturgy for a long time, and for a long time I strove to write it. I started to work on it somehow by chance, and then suddenly became fascinated with it. And then I finished it very quickly. Not for a long time have I written anything with such pleasure.

Soprano Yoshi Campbell’s beautifully written program notes describe Rachmaninoff as “spiritual” but not “religious” – a suitable label and all too relevant cliché of our times. A great lover of church music, but an attritional attendee, Rachmaninoff describes fondly his childhood memories with his Grandmother:

We spent hours standing in the beautiful St. Petersburg churches. Being a greenhorn, I took less interest in God and religious worship than in the singing… especially in the cathedrals where one frequently heard the best choirs of St. Petersburg…”

Campbell states:

Despite the pains that Rachmaninoff had taken to comply with their strictures, the ecclesiastical authorities would not sanction the Liturgy for church performance due to what they called its “spirit of modernism.” A teacher of religious studies explained that it was “absolutely wonderful, even too beautiful, but with such music it would be difficult to pray; it is not church music”… Whether or not it was indeed “too beautiful” to be proper church music, there seems no doubt of the absolutely wonderful nature of Rachmaninoff’s setting of the liturgy… Rachmaninoff did not just set the text, he brought the ritual to life.

With the Communist Revolution forcing him to flee his homeland seven years later, Rachmaninoff’s liturgical music was banned from even concert performance for decades. Coro Allegro, as an acclaimed chorus for members and friends of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities, whose partial mission is to provide access to classical choral music for a broad audience and to bring together disparate communities for shared musical experience, performed this sacred concert with heartfelt sincerity in the midst of our modern political division, controversy and disillusionment with Christianity. Diana Butler Bass writes in her latest book, Christianity after Religion, “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be a choice between intelligence on ice or ignorance on fire?” Regarding this performance and the  place of the arts in our spiritual lives, I cannot imagine a more exemplary religious expression of “intelligence on fire.”

Janine Wanée holds a B.Mus. degree from the University of Southern California, a M.Mus. from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She is currently a member of the Copley Singers under Brian Jones.



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