Sunday, October 3, 2010

Music review: Seraphic Fire's Rachmaninov ravishing, and a departure

By Greg Stepanich

The music of faith may mean most to the worshippers for whose ears it ultimately is meant,‭ ‬but the sensual beauty of‭ ‬some‭ ‬composition in these traditions,‭ ‬especially‭ ‬when well-performed,‭ ‬has a way of suspending doubt.

On Saturday night‭ ‬at All Saints Episcopal‭ ‬in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬the Miami-based concert choir Seraphic Fire continued its opening week of sold-out concerts with an intense,‭ ‬ravishing reading of the Rachmaninov‭ ‬All-Night Vigil‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬37‭)‬,‭ ‬surely one of the only times this work has been done in its entirety on local concert stages.‭ ‬Expanded to‭ ‬25‭ ‬members from its usual‭ ‬13‭ ‬to‭ ‬17,‭ ‬the choir,‭ ‬made up‭ ‬of what director Patrick Dupré Quigley called‭ “‬stellar musical athletes,‭”‬ expertly informed‭ ‬the shapes and hues of this piece in‭ ‬a‭ ‬way that brought listeners‭ ‬close to the feast-eve ecstatic devotion for which this music is intended.‭

Only at the very end of this long‭ ‬13-section work did the sound begin to fray in the soprano reaches,‭ ‬testimony to the difficulty of the music‭ ‬and the strain it places on voices over its lengthy duration.‭ ‬It also reflected Quigley‭’‬s aggressive approach:‭ ‬fast‭ ‬tempos,‭ ‬dynamics favoring the louder end,‭ ‬and an incisive attack in passages such as the‭ ‬line beginning‭ ‬Yezhe yesu ugotoval in the fifth‭ ‬section,‭ ‬Now‭ ‬Let Thy Servant Depart‭ ‬(Nynye otpushchayeshi‭; ‬known in the Latin‭ ‬rite as Nunc dimittis‭)‬.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬the basses were forceful and strong,‭ ‬creating a new,‭ ‬fresh color after the sobriety of the opening.

This was not an‭ ‬interpretation for listeners accustomed to the slow,‭ ‬liquid,‭ ‬somber‭ ‬readings of this music familiar from a number of old‭ ‬Soviet and‭ ‬Russian‭ ‬recordings.‭ ‬This was‭ ‬in line with Quigley‭’‬s‭ ‬highly‭ ‬rhythmic,‭ ‬vigorous direction of Baroque music,‭ ‬and the way,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬that the chorus snapped off the‭ ‬Sviat,‭ ‬sviat,‭ ‬sviat‭ (‬Holy,‭ ‬holy,‭ ‬holy‭) ‬in the‭ ‬Blessed Art Thou,‭ ‬O Lord‭ (‬Blagosloven yesi,‭ ‬Ghospodi‭)‬,‭ ‬would not be to everyone‭’‬s taste.

But what‭ ‬the Rachmaninov‭ ‬may have‭ ‬lost in tenderness‭ ‬and a feeling of rapt devotion,‭ ‬it gained‭ ‬in variety and range,‭ ‬and in a way that‭ ‬illuminated the‭ ‬earthy,‭ ‬vital‭ ‬folk roots of the music.‭ ‬Composed in‭ ‬1915,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Vigil‭ (‬also known as the‭ ‬Vespers‭) ‬offers a rare opportunity to hear Rachmaninov as a vocal composer.‭ ‬His‭ ‬three early operas are almost never heard,‭ ‬nor are his fine cantata,‭ ‬Spring,‭ ‬or the‭ ‬Three Russian Folksongs,‭ ‬a delectable choral work.

Aided in particular by a sonorous bass section‭ ‬that had‭ ‬all the‭ ‬profondo‭ ‬notes‭ (‬Joshua Hillman,‭ ‬Steven Hyrcelak and Kenneth Kellogg‭)‬,‭ ‬the‭ ‬choir‭ ‬demonstrated just how much resource Rachmaninov brought to his task of setting this‭ ‬large text of familiar Christian prayer.‭ ‬The radiance‭ ‬of the best-known section,‭ ‬Rejoice,‭ ‬O Virgin‭ (‬Bogoroditsye Devo,‭ ‬raduysia,‭ ‬also known as the Ave Maria‭)‬,‭ ‬was followed by a setting of‭ ‬Glory to God in the Highest‭ (‬Slava v vishnih Bogu‭) ‬that‭ ‬sounded virile Saturday night,‭ ‬and a‭ ‬setting of‭ ‬Praise the Name of the Lord‭ (‬Hvalite imya Ghospodne‭) ‬that was distinctly‭ ‬redolent of a country folksong.‭

Tenor Bryon Grohman‭ (‬one of several members‭ ‬familiar‭ ‬to Palm Beach County audiences,‭ ‬along with mezzo-soprano Ceci Dadisman,‭ ‬tenor Joshua Habermann,‭ ‬and baritone Graham Fandrei‭) ‬sang his solo lines with a reedy force that had a keening quality apt for such fervent music,‭ ‬and chorus master James Bass,‭ ‬a one-time‭ ‬Orthodox cantor,‭ ‬sang interpolated chant lines between many of the sections.

Grohman also sang an effective solo in the concert‭’‬s opening work,‭ ‬a setting of Psalm‭ ‬41,‭ ‬Blessed Is He Who Considers the Poor‭ (Blazhen razumevayay na nischa i uboga‭)‬,‭ ‬by Alexander Arkhangelsky‭ (‬1846-1926‭)‬,‭ ‬well-known in Russia for his late‭ ‬19th-century reform of Orthodox music.‭ ‬It closed with a traditional Ukrainian song‭ ‬– Great God‭ (‬Bozhe veliki‭) ‬– that was routinely sung during Ukraine‭’‬s push for independence in the early‭ ‬1990s.‭ ‬Both performances had richness and power.

These concerts‭ ‬open the ninth season‭ ‬for Seraphic Fire,‭ ‬and if there were any doubt that the choir has by now firmly established itself as a must-have ticket for devotees of classical music in South Florida,‭ ‬these‭ ‬performances would have dispelled it.‭ ‬Here was an interpretation that brought something different to a beloved work of Russian late Romanticism‭ ‬and at the same‭ ‬time fulfilled it,‭ ‬in the way that can only be done by fine musicians working at their peak.

Seraphic Fire presents this program again today at Miami Beach Community Church in Miami Beach.‭ ‬The concert begins at‭ ‬4‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬The‭ ‬concert is sold out,‭ ‬but more information can be had by calling‭ ‬305-285-9060.‭

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