Los Angeles Music Review: RACHMANINOFF’S ALL-NIGHT VIGIL (Pacific Boychoir at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on May 13, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil was composed in just two weeks during the cold winter of 1915, just after a compositional dry spell. It is known that the great pianist was not a religious man, yet one can only ponder if there was some sort of divine inspiration afoot when he created what is held to be one of the ultimate musical triumphs of the Russian Orthodox Church. Utilizing three forms of chant, Rachmaninoff makes a huge retreat from the sweeping sumptuousness and romanticism which he is best known for, but he is still clearly delighted in traversing the extremes of volume and range in what scholars consider his finest composition.

This religious mass for unaccompanied chorus is intimate, dignified, formal, sophisticated and intensely spiritual, but the highly proficient rendering given by the Pacific Boychoir last Friday in Los Angeles was all of these plus, simply put, astounding. Even knowing the dexterousness of this estimable choir, the keen phrasing and cohesive blend achieved under the leadership of Founding Artistic Director Kevin Fox resulted in a meditative yet invigorating experience for the listeners. Fox also kept the proceedings moving, ensuring a crisp running time of just over an hour; no matter how beautiful the Vigil is, it can be become a bit dreary when slowed to 75 minutes.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema music review of Pacific Boychoir, Rachmaninoff's Vespers.A little shaky at first (remember to watch your conductor, fellas), the choir — augmented with local guest tenors and basses of the highest order — completely found their stride in the third of fifteen movements, and never looked back (even the way the boys gracefully and silently reconfigured themselves between movements was the epitome of class and professionalism). A stellar performance of the Vigil is no small feat, considering how tricky the piece is to execute: The different kinds of ancient Orthodox chant are interlaced throughout the work, which includes dense harmonies compacted into solid auditory knots. In the seventh movement, Shestopsalmiye (“The Six Psalms”), the choir is divided into eleven parts, each of which was brilliantly distributed by the Pacific Boychoir members, even as they sustained their masterful diction of the Russian language.

The tonal expression was lighter than that of an actual SATB chorus; the boy sopranos and boy altos created a purity and subtlety, even in movements like number ten, which asks for tremendous variation in volume. They achieved exquisite power without attacking the piece — evident in the bittersweet spirituality of number thirteen, and the persuasive righteousness of number fifteen.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema music review of Pacific Boychoir, Rachmaninoff's Vespers.Featured soloist tenor Daniel Babcock displayed an elegance in the fifth canticle, Nine otpushchayeshi (“Lord, Now Lettest Thou”), which was Rachmaninoff’s favorite number in the work (he even requested that it be sung at his funeral). Towards the end of the movement, the basses are required to descend note by note to a ridiculously low B-flat – in a near whisper, no less. Regarding the difficulty of acquiring basses who could perform such a task, the patriotic Rachmaninoff assured naysayers that he knew the voices of his countrymen. Well, in this country, the guest artist bass section, which included Pacific Boychoir Academy alumnus David Brega, answered the challenge with a rumbling, resonant mellifluousness that left me in awe.

This concert elucidated why All-Night Vigil is best sung in a church (where it was obviously meant to be performed): The First Congregational Church’s interior may appear cavernous, but the design allows for music to compactly reverberate with just a hint of echo, floating around the audience like a gentle breeze. Fortunately, the Pacific Boychoir’s next two performances of the Vigil take place in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and Oakland’s The Cathedral of Christ the Light.

RACHMANINOFF / All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Op. 37
Pacific Boychoir
First Congregational Church of Los Angeles
played May 10, 2013

All-Night Vigil will be performed next with soloist Wesley Rogers at
Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on May 24, 2013
The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland on May 25, 2013
both concerts also include Arvo Pärt’s The Beatitudes
for more info and tickets to future events, call 510-652-4722
or visit http://www.PacificBoychoirAcademy.org

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