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The All-Night Vigil makes a noteworthy appearance

St. John’s does Rachmaninoff

St. Martin’s Chamber Choir kicks off their 25th anniversary season with a gorgeous performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. Held in the historic Saint John’s Cathedral in Capitol Hill, the lights were dimmed to simulate the darkness in which it would traditionally be performed, lending a magical and contemplative atmosphere. 

Rarely performed and mostly unknown, All-Night Vigil requires a larger chorale including basso profundo (the lowest possible vocal range). Written over two weeks, the All-Night Vigil was influneced by the time it was written: the atmosphere of World War I in which it premiered, and the last days of Russia before the USSR came into being. While Rachmaninoff was not religious himself, he designed this to be used liturgically on the eve and through the night of an important religious feast, leaving spaces in the music for other church functions like prayer and readings. The vigil quickly became popular after its premiere but was banned two years later due to the rise of the USSR and the vigil’s religious nature, and so was only performed publicly outside the Soviet Union. 

Not only did Saint John’s Cathedral create the visual ambiance for this piece, but its sonic qualities highlighted the beauty and technical excellence of the voices: soloists, combinations, or the whole choir at once. Clear yet rich timbres resounded in the cathedral with a sense of intimacy in the quieter sections and goose-bump-inducing power in the triumphal, full-volume moments. As live performances often do, this one created a bond between listeners and musicians without the loss of immediacy in recording and playback.

St. John’s Cathedral Hosts St. Martin’s Chamber Choir. Photo credit: Genessa Gutzait · The Sentry

Artistic Director Timothy J. Krueger welcomed the audience with a humorous and helpful explanation of the piece’s history and musical structures and spoke a bit about his own inspirations for performing it. Though based on the chants traditional to Russian Orthodox church services, Dr. Kreuger noted, “Rachmaninoff combines his own neo-Romantic harmonic vocabulary with the somber, dark basic sound of Orthodox chant, creating a hybrid style of deep spiritual poignancy. 

His genius is such that he can take a formulaic Orthodox chant that, in the hands of a lesser composer would be repetitive and even monotonous, and make it sound like a profoundly inspired melody.” His use of layers and washes of sound, the unusual vocal textures created by soloists and subdividing the choir, and the Slavic melodic roots of the piece make for a choir piece unlike the stereotypes that Western audiences expect. 

The vigil is so musically complex it’s easy to forget when listening that it’s completely unaccompanied voices. Rachmaninoff is known mostly for his symphonies and piano works; he only wrote one other choral work, but the All-Night Vigil shows both his depth and range of talent as an artist. 

Since St. Martin’s Chamber Choir is entering its 25th season, the choir is focusing on challenging themselves by performing works they previously hadn’t, rather than revisiting older favorites. They plan several more performances this season, including a Mexican-themed concert integrating a mariachi band, and have discounted student tickets available.

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