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May 12, 2004


Denver Post

It's not often that choral ensembles are willing to tackle Sergei Rachmaninoff's grand Vespers (All-Night Vigil). And with good reason. The religious Mass for unaccompanied chorus is considered one of the most difficult works in choral repertoire. But it's no surprise that Thomas Morgan and his Boulder- based Ars Nova Singers took on the challenging, ardently spiritual masterpiece - fans of the 43-voice ensemble are accustomed to its first-rate delivery of rarely performed music from the Renaissance to the present. And in Friday night's concert of the Russian Orthodox Church music at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, Ars Nova didn't disappoint.

For starters, the group has the striking ability to stay on key and on pitch without a piano or other instrument to ground it. And the work's libretto - a transliteration of the traditional Old Church Slavonic language - was delivered with remarkably cohesive articulation, especially evident in the unison melodies. Alternating between praise and plea, the Mass embodies a reverential human encounter with ultimate divinity. The often haunting and tranquil melodic material was delivered with great passion and tenderness, evoking a sense of awe and serenity, and revealing the naked beauty of a cappella voices.

Morgan, artistic director of Ars Nova, masterfully conducted the hushed phrasings of the integrated folk influences and traditional chants of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the rich, resounding acoustics of the cathedral, the lambent songs of praise enveloped the audience in a wash of celestial sounds.

Deemed by the composer to be one of his finest works, the 15 linked psalms and hymns - separated by chiming tubular bells played by Brian du Fresne - are a lush, romantic score with a dense harmonic foundation. The 20th-century work also showcases high soprano lines and maximal low bass passages that would easily defeat singers of lesser caliber. Of note was the exquisitely sustained finish of each movement. And solo contributions by bass Philip Judge in the opening prelude, and tenor Adam Finkel throughout the work, soared effortlessly above the undulating voices beneath.

Posted by acapnews at May 12, 2004 8:13 AM


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