Artistic Director & Conductor: Steven Fox
Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil
I did mean it when I declared that my holiday music duty had been completely and happily fulfilled a couple of weeks ago, but that was without counting Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, widely considered one of the finest achievements in Russian Orthodox music, unexpectedly sneaking up on me at the last minute. I had never heard of the Clarion Choir, but I was very well aware of the pristine reputation of The Trinity Church's music programs, so the timing sounded just right to head all the way downtown earlier today and wrap up 2013 with a Russian touch.
This explains why this afternoon I took a fiercely refreshing walk down Broadway from Madison Square Park to Wall Street - The bitterly cold wind and countless whirling flurries adding to the Russian background - where I met my friend Ruth at the entrance of the landmark Episcopal church, all bundled up and hanging out with an already impressive number of eager music lovers.
The Clarion Choir is by no means a large choir (I counted 27 singers) but from the very first notes of "Come, let us worship", the singers organically formed one distinctly assertive ensemble that was clearly relishing taking over the magnificent space with such an inspiring composition. Their remarkable osmosis did not mean that individual voices did not get to shine though, and all the soloists made a well-taken point of standing out in a unfussy but unmistakable way. Young and dynamic conductor Steven Fox masterfully brought out the rich lyricism of the work and created beautifully complex tapestries of sounds.
I have always found the Russian language's intrinsic fullness of sound and depth of tone particularly well-suited for singing, and today I felt totally vindicated again. Even if the words' meanings were not semantically understood, the emotional force of the various movements effortlessly came through thanks to the choir's highly expressive singing. The "Alleluias" eloquently resonated, the "Phos Hilaron" oozed stark solemnity and the "Ave Maria" opened with elating grace, among many other memorable moments.
"Nunc Dimittis" was allegedly Rachmaninoff's favorite movement - He even requested it to be performed at his funeral - and it is easy to figure out why. Combining a mood of exquisite serenity, a gently uplifting tenor and what has to be the most incredible bass progression in all choral history, it is both understated and forever haunting. This evening's gripping performance of it confirmed, if need be, its flawless beauty and dramatic power.
The concert, and my musical year, finished with the grand finale that is "To thee, the victorious leader", a rousing Greek chant celebrating the Virgin in all her glory. In the packed church, it literally exploded with life, joy and colors galore. Could those last exhilarating notes be a good omen for 2014? One can only hope so. Happy New Year!