JON WASHBURN DIRECTS MULTIPLE CHOIRS IN AN IMPRESSIVE RACHMANINOFF ALL-NIGHT VIGIL

Dolores Scott (mezzo-soprano), Fabiana Katz (contralto), Eric Schwarzhoff (tenor), Vancouver Chamber Choir, Vancouver Cantata Singers, Pacifica Singers, Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, Jon Washburn (conductor), Orpheum, March 30, 2018.

 Photos by Matthew Baird

Photos by Matthew Baird

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Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil (often mistranslated as Vespers) is an hour-long work in fifteen movements for unaccompanied chorus, and poses formidable challenges for performers and audience alike. To keep an audience engaged over this long span of a cappella singing in an unfamiliar language, it is incumbent upon the performers to exploit to the full its many dynamic, harmonic, and textural contrasts. For the most part, Jon Washburn’s sensitive direction of the combined forces of the Vancouver Chamber Choir and Vancouver Cantata Singers did just this, giving a most persuasive account of this magisterial score. It found a desirably-wide expressive range while maintaining accurate intonation, clear textures, and a careful attention to balance. The second part of the concert lightened the intensity by performing Gabriel Fauré’s charming Messe basse, with the Pacifica Singers joining in for Morten Lauridsen’s popular Lux aeterna.

The All-Night Vigil has always been regarded as one of Rachmaninoff’s finest works and an apex of Russian Orthodox musical composition. Composed in 1915, it is notable, first, because the composer had already ceased attending church services. But more dramatically, the initial success of its performances were brought to a full halt by the 1917 Revolution, which condemned religious music outright. It was only in 1965 – a full 50 years after its composition – that the first Russian recording was made, with the State Academic Russian Choir of the USSR under Aleksandr Sveshnikov. 10 of its 15 sections are based on chant (though the remaining ones are generically close to chant), and it brings much greater harmonic complexity to the template originally put forth in Tchaikovsky’s setting of the vigil in 1881.

In this performance, the broad dynamic range of this approximately 60-member chorus was particularly impressive, ranging from the delicate pianissimo at the beginning of No. 5, ‘Lord, now lettest Thou,’ to the spacious yet unforced fortissimo climaxes in No. 10, ‘Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ.’ The subtle dynamic shadings between successive phrases in No. 1, ‘Come let us worship,’ and No. 3, ‘Blessed is the man,’ were articulated with particular care and lent the music variety, structural clarity and shape. The many instances of two- and three-part divisi within sections of the chorus were well balanced, with each strand of the texture projecting clearly and effortlessly. Examples are too numerous to mention, but I especially enjoyed the evocations of chiming bells in No. 7, ‘The Six Psalms,’ which culminates in a display of eleven-part polyphony.  These were the ingredients that allowed the performance to add up convincingly.

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As for the solo contributions, contralto Fabiana Katz possessed an attractively dark timbre and richly resonant voice that was easily heard above the choral tenors and basses. On the other hand, the singing of the tenor soloist Eric Schwarzhoff projected less well, being occasionally difficult to hear and somewhat vocally unsteady. While the overall choral output was always distinguished, it would be fair to say that the sopranos and altos demonstrated greater consistency in their enunciation of the words than the tenors and basses – most noticeable in passages of antiphony and part imitation. Listeners accustomed to authentic Slavic interpretations of this work would likely feel that the basses in the present performance lacked the heft and visceral impact of their finest Eastern European counterparts, most notably in the infamous descent to low B-flat at the end of No. 5, ‘Lord, now lettest Thou.’ If that suggests some lack of authenticity in this performance, one might recall that Danilin, who conducted the work’s Moscow premiere, himself protested, ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’ Nonetheless, he found them.

The second half of the program began with Fauré’s Messe basse, a setting of the shorter movements of the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei) in an arrangement with chamber orchestra crafted by Maestro Washburn. Fauré’s unpretentious 10-minute piece may appear slight compared to Rachmaninoff’s magnum opus, but its relaxed lyricism was most welcome. The performance was suitably intimate in scale and featured some fine singing from the mezzo-soprano Dolores Scott. For the popular Lux aeterna, the Vancouver Chamber Choir was joined by the Pacifica Singers, yielding a chorus of about 40 members. All the singers clearly relished Morton Lauridsen’s lush vocal writing and gently dissonant harmonic idiom. The instrumental support by the Vancouver Chamber Orchestra was generally tasteful, with a well-balanced string section and some fine pianissimo playing from the brass; I was particularly impressed by the blend and balance of the horns and trombone. It is regrettable that oboist Roger Cole did not fully match the more subtle dynamic shadings of his woodwind colleagues.

This was a most rewarding program of both depth and variety. It was also a lovely celebration of the almost half-century commitment of conductor Jon Washburn – as he approaches the end of his tenure with the Vancouver Chamber Choir.  One trivial caveat is nonetheless in order: if only someone had reminded the audience members to turn off their cellular phones before the start of performance, we may have had an even more fulfilling experience.

© Nicolas Krusek 2018