Bell, Grant Park Chorus deliver a remarkable evening of Rachmaninoff

Fri Jul 14, 2017 at 9:47 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Chorus in Rachmaninoff's "All Night Vigil" Thursday night at the South Shore Cultural Center.
Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Chorus in Rachmaninoff’s “All Night Vigil” Thursday night at the South Shore Cultural Center.

Directed by Christopher Bell, the Grant Park Chorus proved once again that they are the most finely honed vocal ensemble in the city with Thursday evening’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (often called Vespers) at the South Shore Cultural Center.

For such a large ensemble, the Grant Park Chorus displays a remarkable cohesion of execution, wedded to an enormous dynamic range. Bell had them use their true fortissimo only sparingly. But when they used it, it nearly blew the roof off with a formidable flood of impassioned sound that was never strained.

Many of the evening’s most exciting dynamic effects were ones not explicitly prescribed by Rachmaninoff, and presumably of Bell’s devising. These never sounded contrived, but rather faithfully served the music.

The third movement, “Blazhen Muzh” (“Blessed Be the Man”) is continually punctuated by a chain of three “Alleluias.” Bell had them sing the first with a large swell, the second loud and clear, and the third slowly and softly. Thus, each “alleluia” had a different shade of meaning.

The imitations of distant bells in “The Lesser Doxology,” the piece’s seventh movement, were beautifully realized: with sharp onsets and rapid decays vividly evoking their tolling.

Mezzo-soprano Corinne Wallace-Crane and tenor Hoss Brock served as the two soloists for the evening.  Wallace-Crane’s dark tone melded perfectly with the dense cushion of bass notes beneath her in “Blogosolvi, Dushe Moya” (“Bless the Lord, O My Soul”). It was darkness blanketing darkness.

For Brock’s solo in “Nyne Otpushchayeshi” (“Lord, Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart”), Bell kept him standing in the back (rather than moving to the front of the stage, as Wallace-Crane had) and balanced the choral parts loudly against him. With Brock’s ardent timbre, this created the effect of a distant voice crying out in the wilderness, rather than peacefully floating above the chorus (as is more normally the effect).  

The emotional core of the piece is formed by its ninth, eleventh, and twelfth movements, each twice or thrice as long as most of the others. These are difficult to sustain in performance, but Bell paced them sensitively and the chorus produced a wide enough variety of timbres to maintain dramatic interest.

Particularly effective was the coda of “The Great Doxology.” It started swiftly and softly, a contrast to the otherwise placid pace of the movement. But then it built to a tremendous, loud climax on the last line, capped by a very large ritardando on the word “bezsmertnyi” (“immortal”).

Perhaps, no choirs west of the Baltic have entire bass sections that can hit Rachmaninoff’s low notes (including the piece’s infamous low B-flat). But the Grant Park Chorus must have quite a few singers who can, because the deepest chords resounded richly.  

Throughout the evening, Bell and the Grant Park Chorus cultivated the requisite Russian sound. And when Rachmaninoff calls for bare open fifths, the chorus sang them pellucidly tuned, so one could feel their quasi-medieval gauntness.

The Grant Park Chorus will repeat Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil  7 p.m. July 18 at the Columbus Park Refectory.

Posted in Performances

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