Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rachmaninoff Reverberations

I am still savoring many lingering frissons and delightful reverberations after singing in CONCORA’s performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers), which we presented on April 13 in the resonant sanctuary of the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle in West Hartford. (We repeat the performance on April 20 at 5:00 p.m. in the equally lovely sanctuary of The Church of St. Mary on Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island.) A nice preview article appeared in the April 17 edition of the Providence Journal at

Preparing a work of this intricacy with only five rehearsals and a dress rehearsal (which was actually a recording session) was exhilarating! But because CONCORA is an all-professional choir, all the singers had mastered the music prior to the first rehearsal and all had marked their scores according to Director Richard Coffey’s “edit master” score (a process which saves countless hours of rehearsal time). Thus, our rehearsal time can be devoted almost entirely to interpretation and polish.

Though the music is not complex, the score is visually challenging. Each part carries two lines of unfamiliar-looking text (Cyrillic and a singing transliteration; the English translation is provided elsewhere in the score) Our scores are further embellished with careful instructions from Mr. Coffey as to dynamics and tempi, plus the inevitable and varied annotations which have accumulated over 15+ years of use by CONCORA singers. Also, many of us took the further step of writing the English translations into the appropriate locations, so the pages are fairly cluttered. (I confess that after I received my loan copy from the CONCORA library, I took one look and promptly ordered a “virgin” score from Musica Russica for my own use.) (Vladimir Morosan, founder and president of Musica Russica, and editor of these terrific performing scores, performed the Vigil with us and sang the opening chant and one of the tenor solos.)

The marvelous textures and dynamic colors which make this music famous are achieved through Rachmaninoff’s ingenious scoring, which in this work is characterized by continuously shifting divisi in all the vocal parts. In addition to the standard I-II division in each of the four (SATB) voice parts (thus, SS-AA-TT-BB), Rachmaninoff often calls for each voice part to divide into three parts (thus, SSS-AAA-TTT-BBB). On top of this, Mr. Coffey divides all female singers into three parts (high-medium-low, his famous à3), and does the same for the men, using these groups to provide specific color or weight to selected vocal lines.

These multiple divisions require singers who can perform visual and mental acrobatics! For example, a soprano with a medium-high voice might sing three different parts: Soprano II and the lowest part of the three-part Soprano divisi and the middle part (“2”) of the women’s à3 division. The musical lines to which she might be assigned could be on the alto or soprano staves, and could shift between the two even within a single musical passage. To perform this music confidently, in Russian, requires rapid visual reconnaissance, rock-solid mastery of both music and text, and intense concentration. (I was very grateful to have been assigned to the highest soprano parts throughout, as the top line was easy to follow, though the poor lighting in the chancel added to the challenge.)

Following Mr. Coffey’s direction during this performance also required intense concentration and vigilance, and most all, the ability to sing off the page and into his vision. Though he adhered almost entirely to the tempi, dynamics, and pacing that we had rehearsed, naturally during the performance anything can happen, as the magic of choral singing lifts us all into another place. As I mentioned to my husband afterward, it was as though a bright and shining train were pulling out of the station, heading for a new and wonderful but unknown place; anyone who was ready to jump on, and who had the courage to leave familiar territory behind, would be transported and would never experience this music in the same way again. And this performance was indeed transporting, luminous, transcendent.

After the last notes of the final movement finished their invisible yet somehow tangible reverberation from one end of the sanctuary to the other, and up to and around the lofty reaches beyond the clerestory, I was moved to tears, first by the resonant silence that fell over us all, then by the standing ovation which slowly overtook the audience in a swelling ripple from back to front as the listeners emerged from their reverie and understood that they had just experienced something remarkable. Not to be forgotten.

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