The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Rachmaninov: Music of the Eternal Soul - October 26, 2013
by V. Frantzreb
As one who has known little of the life and influences of the Russian composer Sergey Rachmaninov, I was certainly in for some edification at last night's concert, which was a celebration of the 140th year of the composer's birth. Even though the concert started a bit late, I was enthralled by the enthusiasm of the audience as they began to fill the largest of Harris Center's three theaters. The atmosphere felt more like a gathering of a family, a community, a culture.
When the lights dimmed, church bells pealed as the 28-member Slavic Chorale filed onto the stage to begin the program not only of Rachmaninov's music, but of Tchaikovsky and Arvo Pärt, as well. The Chorale began powerfully, filling the auditorium with rich, well-balanced, well-articulated sound. No vocal part over-balanced another as they began with Tchaikovsky's "Come, Let Us Bow Down, Holy God." (Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
Bells pealed again, and the Chorale left the stage to stand along the outside aisles for their second piece, a Byzantine chant. Again, no part dominated the other, and I was taken with how rich their voices still sounded from the sides of the theater. Every time the singers entered and left the stage, the church bells were played, providing a beautiful interlude between the elements of the concert. Later, I learned that church bells inspired Rachmaninov from his early life and were represented in much of the music he wrote.
One of the highlights of the program came with a piano solo of Rachmaninov's "Prelude in G-sharp minor," played by Tatiana Scott. As she played, images of the Russian countryside and iconic church structures were shown on a screen behind her. It was a brilliant effect, for the richness of the beautifully played prelude reached the depths of one's soul. For a moment I was lifted away from daily concerns and taken to a place that only the heart can feel.
I was expecting the whole event to feature the Slavic Chorale, but I was in for a few surprises. Two different soprano soloists (Oksana Sitnitska and Svetlana Nikitenko) performed art songs that were written specifically for the church. Each sang two songs in Russian. I do not speak Russian, but through the soloists' well-executed interpretations of what they sang, I could certainly feel their passion and depth of sincerity.
The vocal soloists were followed by a very well-accomplished violin soloist, Igor Veligan. To write "accomplished" is putting it mildly. His interpretation of Rachmaninov's "Elegy" was deeply moving. Again, images were shown behind all these musicians.
The audience learned about Rachmaninov's personal life, and the images of spring blossoms, lilacs particularly, added an element to the music that was touching. In a sense, though, the images behind the violinist were superfluous: his sensitive playing and the crystal clear notes that he produced were enough to help anyone understand the angst and sorrow that the composer must have felt in his life. This violin player was that good.
The second half of the program was shorter, but no less inspirational. After the Chorale sang Arvo Pärt's "Bless the Lord, All Ye Tongues," piano soloist, Jacob Veligan, brilliantly performed Rachmaninov's "Étude Tableau, op. 39, no. 5." This young man's fingers virtually flew over the keyboard, and I was captivated by his ability to make this piece "sing."I was continually impressed with the Slavic Chorale’s consistent energy and vocal discipline. I never felt as though the singers got tired or bored. By the way, they sang a cappella throughout the program. Even by the end of the performance, they maintained their pitch, and as all well-attentive singers do, they followed their director's nuances. The last piece was "their most difficult piece," therefore following their director for dynamics, etc. was vital. "Blessed Art Thou, O Lord" was absolutely gorgeous! It was a fitting finale to a very moving program, an inspired way of honoring the composer's life.