Come see the Rachmaninoff Vespers, Mark Powell said in a note. “It’s unlike any performance ever. (The conductor) Mark Bailey is incorporating the knowledge of performance practice of the early 20th century – the way Rachmaninoff played and conducted (piano, orchestra, choir) and the way the choir sang for which it was written (The Synodal Choir in Moscow – which was a men-and-boys choir – like the English cathedrals, but, er, not!).”
Powell is executive director of Cappella Romana, the superb Portland and Seattle vocal ensemble, and a pretty good guide to what’s worth while, and so I showed up Sunday afternoon at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Northwest Portland for the final performance of Cappella’s season-opening program. The cathedral was close to packed (Carlos Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony, was right behind me), and the performance was in that fascinating in-between space that most European music was for many centuries: part performance, part worship. I hadn’t seen Cappella Romana in a while, though I listen now and again on CD,
Rachmaninoff premiered his All-Night Vigil a century ago, in 1915, and built it on traditions of chant that are much older than that. Cappella Romana’s 25 singers (12 women, 13 men) performed it with grace, power, and precision, sometimes subtly, sometimes searchingly, sometimes with a great swell of sound and unified emotion, and although the program included all the lyrics so I could follow along if I wished, I chose to simply listen and let the sound sweep through me as it resonated around the cathedral. That made it a nonverbal experience, a matter of just taking in and being.
It was a performance I felt unequipped to judge from a technical point of view – I appreciate the distinctions of approach and technique that Powell pointed out but lack the training to fully understand them – and yet fully equipped to feel, and to understand on an emotional and intellectual level. That, after all, is what’s required of a receptive audience.
Without the words, which are steeped in ritual and deeply meaningful to many in the audience but by no means all, it’s the music itself that speaks. For me, at least, the words are religious, and so potentially divisive, but the music is spiritual, and so potentially unifying. Bailey, the director, might have been getting at something similar when he said this to A.L. Adams in an interview for Artslandia magazine: “The All-Night Vigil poses a fascinating question for the performers and audience alike. On the one hand, it’s a setting of a religious service—and there’s a modesty embedded in praying to God. But on the other hand, Rachmaninoff intended the Vigil for the concert, as a way of telling the story of the service, through music only. He incorporates the smells, the sights, the feeling—all into sound. So to tell the story of what it means to humble yourself to a larger power is a great challenge.”
On Sunday afternoon, Rachmanoff’s music more than met the challenge. Deeply rooted in his Russian Orthodox traditions and beliefs, it seemed to traverse time, reaching far back to simple lines and harmonies and recombining them in complex ways. Solos built on chant and gave a kind of rough, human quality that counterbalanced the choir’s tonal purity, bringing welcome vigor and individuality to the performance. The music’s bass lines were low and reverberant, its brief solos like piercings of a veil, its resolutions satisfying on a level that defies words.
And that, it struck me, gets to the true meaning of “classic”: not a time period or a signifier of something ancient and therefore not quite relevant, but something that remains young and fresh and powerful, capable of inspiring and reviving no matter what its chronological age. That’s why groups such as Cappella Romana sing such things again and again: because, each time, they’re new. And that’s why audiences listen again and again: because, each time we do, we move a little farther outside ourselves, expanding subtly as we go. Yes, the future is an adventure, and artists and audiences must explore its implications. And yet the past is still an undiscovered country, even when we think we know the map.