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April 20, 2005

Joint choirs were ready for Rachmaninov

The Register-Guard (OR):

Sergey Rachmaninov's Vespers is an exquisite choral masterpiece. Its layers of rich, harmonic colors, its tingling dissonances and tempo changes, and its demanding a cappella intonation are a challenge to any choir. The unique union of two choirs - a professional Ukrainian choir, Cantus, and the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble - met this challenge Saturday with ethereal, lush and roof-raising sounds. The two choirs were prepared individually by Diane Retallack, director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble, and Emil Sokach, director of Cantus. They then joined as one under Sokach.

On an evening when two other Russian musical events tempted Eugene classical music lovers, the Vespers drew an enthusiastic and overflow crowd to Central Lutheran Church. No one was disappointed. Written in 1915, Rachmaninov's Vespers consists of 15 settings of prayers and psalms from the Russian Orthodox Church's All-Night Vigil. The service includes not only vespers or evening prayers, but also matins, the traditional prayers at midnight. The late-Romantic Period lushness of this music must be met by a full-blooded choral sound. The white-bread, vibratoless sound that is often associated with church music in the West simply will not do. The Western church has idealized the music of the English church choir with its boy trebles, and it is that ideal that many of us recently heard during the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Instead, Russian liturgical music is noted for its round, ample sound and its operatic depth.

When we think of Russian music, we first think of bass voices, and on Saturday, the basses of this joint choir were the stars. Rather than simply grounding the chorus in various harmonic structures, they were its soloists. When, at the end of songs, the basses descended to the lowest notes humanly possible, we felt the solidity of a spiritual foundation. When they joined with the rich-sounding altos in the repeated phrase, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes," we felt the assuredness of faith. Both the basses and the altos of this chorus provided sonorous power.

The sopranos and tenors were no less effective, but they did not have the luxuriant sound of the other two sections. However, they particularly triumphed in ethereal passages, such as the refrain that periodically interrupts the Magnificat. The two soloists, tenor Volodymyr Fedas and alto Nataliya Kozachuk, sang beautifully. Kozachuk has a honeyed voice, although she was not able to sustain the necessary legato in her one song. Fedas' light, yet resonant tenor seemed to come from afar in his several solo outings.

When the chorus came together, they could produce ear-shattering reverberations as well as soft whispers, at times in the same song. Strong dynamic contrast is one of the keys to the interpretation of this music, and it infuses the different sections with variety. The most successful song along these lines was the third piece; its repeated "alleluia" became mesmerizing. Apart from dynamics, legato singing is the most crucial element in singing the Vespers. In some pieces, it must seem as if the chorus sings the entire piece on one breath. One of the hymns to the Virgin Mary was sung beautifully on a seamless ribbon of sound until the final, effective break before the last three words. A similar long line was maintained in the last piece, a joyful tribute to Theotokos, the Mother of God.

Inevitably, when two different choral groups are joined to sing as one, there are glitches. Not all the musical entrances were exact, and some of the final notes did not end together. With no instruments to guide them, the choir at one point found itself singing an unintended dissonance, and Sokach had to begin again. But these are minor miscues in an evening of profound and moving music-making. An immediate and prolonged standing ovation greeted these choirs and their directors at the end of the evening.

Posted by acapnews at April 20, 2005 12:20 AM