The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Co-conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck explain the appeal of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and why they are hard to perform and exotic to hear for Western ears. Hear them for yourself when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union performs this a cappella masterpiece on this Saturday night, April 26. | April 21, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” or “All-Night Vigil.” (Below is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.)

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There is only one performance of this rarely heard work. One short and beautiful audio clip is at the bottom in a YouTube video, and will give you a sample of the gorgeous a cappella, or unaccompanied, sound.

Admission is $10 for adults and the general public. Senior citizens and students get in for free. Tickets may be purchased for concerts up to one month in advance. 
Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. 
You can call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) for ticket information and reservations.

The Ear asked co-conductors Beverly Taylor (below top) and Adam Kluck (below bottom) to answer a Q&A by email. Below are the answers provided by Beverly Taylor (BT) and Adam Kluck (AK).

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

Sergei Rachmaninoff is known primarily as a virtuosic piano and orchestral composer. How do his vocal compositions, in particular the “Vespers,” stand up in quality and characteristics of the melodies and harmonies, the rhythm and Russian feel, to his more popular works?

BT: I actually know little of his vocal output beyond the vespers, although I know there are some lovely works for women’s voices. Most of the Vespers are based on existing chant, and although the melodies are not always as expansive as Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, the flow and grace are part of his output, and his use of extreme dynamics from very soft ppp to very loud ff are those of a Romanticist.

AK: It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff, lauded for his prowess as a “melodist” in his instrumental works, would choose to set the All-Night Vigil service of the Orthodox church (thus limiting himself to a composition that had to be completely a cappella or without accompaniment).

We know that Rachmaninoff grew up near the church in Novgorod (further down is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in that city) and, although he was not a practicing Orthodox Christian, he certainly was familiar with the practices and — most importantly — the musical and liturgical aspects of the church. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff set another large-scale a cappella work based on another Orthodox church service, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Tchaikovsky and several other well-known Russian composers set this as well. Rachmaninoff did not like what he ended up with, and so he decided to set the All-Night Vigil.

Most movements are harmonizations and re-workings of chant melodies dating back to the Byzantines, although Rachmaninoff (below)  does create a few movements based on his own melodic content; and these latter movements are just as effective, if not more so.

The long melodic lines throughout much of the work are characteristic of Rachmaninoff, but even harmonically the compositional language is relatively conservative.

Rachmaninoff

How do the Vespers compare or rank when placed against some of the other great choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and other works and composers that the UW Choral Union performs?

BT: They’re simply–different! Most of what we sing in the UW Choral Union (seen below, with the UW Symphony Orchestra) is accompanied by orchestra, and most of the Classical and early Romantic works have more periodic phrasing, so that an overall form emerges. That is much less the case with these beautiful pieces; a few of them have verses and recognizable refrains.  Others are through-composed. They are more meditative, and show off particularly the low and mellow sounds.  The basses (and we have them!) are asked to sing low D’s, C’s and even a low B in the work.

AK: The pacing of the All-Night Vigil is atypical of those other composers. There are often several movements strung together with very similar tempi, and some of the movements are much longer than others.

The absence of any instrumentalists also means no break for the choir and a magnification of any intonation and tuning issues. Additionally, the first soprano and tenor parts sit quite high in the voice for sustained periods of time, compounding the difficulty.

It is certainly one of the most challenging pieces of any size and scope for these reasons, and for the audience it does require a somewhat different mindset as well. There won’t be the rollicking fugues we’ve come to love and expect from a Haydn or Mozart mass, or a Bach cantata. This piece is something else entirely.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Why do you think the Vespers aren’t better known or performed more frequently?

BT: They call for a fair amount of “divisi” — divided parts in all the ranges, but mostly it’s the lack of good low basses, which I think explains why they’re not done more often.

AK: Apart from the unique challenges it presents, I think that in the United States, Russian choral music is still intimidating to us. The language is still the primary barrier, but the choral sound in Eastern Europe and Russia is different to us as well. Rather than attempting to replicate these sonorities as accurately as possible, some directors often choose to program something that is more familiar to audiences and choristers alike. (Below is the interior of a Russian Orthodox Church.)

Russian Orthodox church interior

What specific things would you like to point out for the public to know about the Vespers and your performance of them?

BT: My assistant Adam Kluck loves this work, and so we’re splitting the conducting duties. We’re also doing some minor things involving projections and icons to convey somewhat the world of the senses in which these works would be performed — candles, beautiful art. (Below is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in the city of Novgorod, where Rachmaninoff grew up.)

AK: In the Russian church tradition, there are many prescriptions for singing as part of a service. We will have one of our choir members, Father Michael, an Orthodox priest, sing the chant before the piece, so that it is permissible to sing the “amen” at the beginning of each of the first two movements.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of each movement illustrates the text very well, and so especially if you are able to follow along with the translations, the piece will really come alive.

Russian icon from Novgorod

Is there something else you would like to say or add?

BT: The concert will be lovely, but more meditative than some concerts.  It won’t always hit you in the face, but it will certainly be well worth listening deeply to.

AK: If your readers enjoy this piece of music, I would encourage them to seek out other choral music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Gretchaninoff, and any other Russian composers. The sacred and secular music of the Russian-Baltic region just after the turn of the century is wonderfully expressive and unique.

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4 Comments »

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    Comment by iron bedside table — July 4, 2014 @ 11:00 am

  2. … [Trackback]

    […] Read More here: welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/classical-music-qa-co-conductors-beverly-taylor-and-adam-kluck-explain-the-appeal-of-sergei-rachmaninoffs-vespers-and-why-they-are-hard-to-perform-and-exotic-to-hear-f/ […]

    Trackback by Homepage — May 31, 2014 @ 1:46 am

  3. […] On Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison Choral Union will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” or “All-Night Vigil,” composed in 1915, consisting of settings of texts taken from the Russian Orthodox All-night vigil ceremony. Read about this work in Madison’s blog, The Well-Tempered Ear. […]

    Pingback by Pro Arte goes on tour; new faculty hires; di Sanza receives award « Fanfare! — April 22, 2014 @ 12:13 pm


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