The Singers provide glowing account of Rachmaninoff Vespers at Ravinia

Wed Jun 19, 2013 at 12:15 pm

By Kyle MacMillan

The Singers performed Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” Tuesday night in Highland Park for the Ravinia Festival

Rather than the massive scale, sweeping drama or visceral intensity of some choral masterworks, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (or Vespers, as it is also known) finds power in its inward profundity, hushed intimacy and other-worldly beauty. Performing this infrequently work Tuesday evening under the auspices of the Ravinia Festival was conductor Matthew Culloton and the Singers,

Written in about two weeks in early 1915, it offers Rachmaninoff’s updated yet tradition-minded take on the Russian Orthodox vigil, which dates to the 14th century and combines the monastic services of Vespers, Matins and Prime. It draws on three types of ancient chants for nine of the sections, with the composer seamlessly supplying his own chant-like writing – what he called “conscious counterfeits” – for the other six.

The All-Night Vigil offers a side the famed 20th-century Russian composer that seems far away from the showy romanticism that is associated with his more famous works, such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. 

Yet it is obviously the one he preferred, because he named this piece his favorite along with another of his choral compositions, The Bells.

The selection of this little-known choir from Minneapolis (perhaps engaged because of its appearance at the national convention of the American Choral Directors Association in Chicago in 2011) was surprising until the 45 singers opened their mouths Tuesday night.

Choirs that take on the All-Night Vigil need to burrow into and inhabit this work, and that is exactly what the Singers did. The ensemble sounded so comfortable, like it sings the piece all the time, delivering a spellbinding and at times transcendent performance.

There was much to like about this group, starting with its faultless intonation, impeccable precision and fine-calibrated balance (heard to notable effect in the interplay of the high and low voices in the 11th movement, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord”). Perhaps most remarkable was The Singers’ rich, dimensional blend, which was showcased again in again in sections such as the 11th movement, “Glory to God in the Highest,” with its penetrating 11-part harmonies.

The All-Night Vigil requires ultra-low basses, and this ensemble has them – singers with a seemingly bottomless range and an embracing and utterly captivating sound. They made their mark right from the second movement and were the stars of the fifth movement, “Now Let Your Servant Depart,” with its final descending scale that ends on a low B flat.

The work is typically sung with tenor and alto solos in certain sections, but as is sometimes done, the Singers chose to perform the solo sections with multiple voices, a decision that perhaps takes away some potential for vocal contrasts but nonetheless proved in effective in its way.

The performance took place in Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Park. With its wood-truss ceiling and stunning stained-glass windows, the historic structure’s interior offered a visually appealing setting, and its intimate size and warm, enveloping and not unduly reverberant acoustics were ideally suited to this piece.

The program will be repeated 8:30 tonight in the Martin Theatre at the Ravinia Festival.

Posted in Performances

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