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Two Choirs, At One, All-Night

S.F. Choral Society
Golden Gate Men's Chorus

November 15, 2013

All-Night VigilAs one of the last representatives of the Russian Romantic tradition, composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) is mostly known for his sumptuous orchestrations and virtuosic piano music. But one of his finest musical achievements is an austere, unaccompanied choral work in 15 movements, based on ancient liturgical chant from the Orthodox Church: the All-Night Vigil, also (inaccurately) known as the Vespers, Op. 37.

Together with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, the San Francisco Choral Society gave two performances last weekend of this large-scale masterpiece at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco. The massed forces were conducted by the Choral Society’s artistic director, Robert Geary.

The Golden Gate Men’s Chorus set the tone for the concert before intermission, with a few well-chosen religious pieces: a Russian liturgical composition, Dostónyo Yest by Nikolai Golovanov (1891–1953); a seasonal Gregorian chant, Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ is born); and two jubilant contemporary works by American composers: Alleluia by Randall Thompson (1899–1984) and Hosanna by Dan Forrest (b. 1978).

The latter composition is a magnificent, very cleverly constructed sound sculpture that is in constant forward motion. It never rests or breathes and uses only the word Hosanna as text, plus the occasional foot stomp to mimic the sound of a large drum. GGMC’s Music Director Joseph Piazza leads his ensemble from within; on stage he is almost completely surrounded by his singers, and he literally has them at his fingertips. The pre-intermission program demonstrated what a beautifully homogeneous ensemble the GGMC is, with an impressive sonority.

The pre-intermission program demonstrated what a beautifully homogeneous ensemble the GGMC is, with an impressive sonority.

This was no doubt the reason that the GGMC was invited to join forces with the S.F. Choral Society for this All-Night Vigil. Not only did the 50-plus male voices bring the total number of performing vocalists up to a very impressive 220 or so, but they also gave the overall sound of the conjoined ensemble the deeper timbre that is usually associated with music from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Not entirely deep enough, however. It would have been awesome if Robert Geary could have conjured up a handful of “bassi profondi,” singers who can comfortably drop below the range of a typical bass; but I can imagine that they are hard to find, and you can’t have everything.

It certainly would have made the ending of the fifth movement (“Nyne otpushchayeshi”) less strenuous for the low basses, who, after a long solo for the tenor, have to negotiate a descending scale that ends with a low B-flat.

Most impressive of all was the fact that 220 voices together could produce a sound that was powerful, soft, full, transparent, and light — all at the same time.

Geary must have subjected his singers to a crash course in Slavic choir practice, because, as it was, the combined sound of the members of the Choral Society and the Men’s Chorus was surprisingly authentic in nature, with a strong foundation of resounding men’s voices and a top layer of finely blended, but individually distinguishable, women’s voices, like a transparent dusting of snow on dark Russian soil. Yet most impressive of all was the fact that 220 voices together could produce a sound that was powerful, soft, full, transparent, and light — all at the same time.

Further Slavic authenticity was supplied by the two Russian-born vocal soloists: bass-baritone Nikolai Massenkoff, who sang the part of the Priest, and tenor Kirill Dushechkin, who approached his solos (a lengthy one in movement 5 and shorter ones in movements 4 and 9) with an operatic zeal that worked very well in spite of the liturgical setting. Less compelling was mezzo-soprano Katherine McKee in her solo in the second movement “Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda” (Praise the Lord, O my soul). This part is originally written for alto and McKee seemed to be straining at the bottom of her range.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.

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