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Sacred spaces in motion: Portland Symphonic Choir joins forces with push/FOLD Dance Company for Rachmaninoff’s ‘All-Night Vigil’

A new take on the liturgical work, from choral director Alissa Deeter and choreographer Samuel Hobbs; also, Chanticleer returns to Oregon.

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Sergei Rachmaninov.
Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Do you have a favorite choral work that transports you to a special place? Where your insides just come alive or maybe they melt? Perhaps you sob or leap with joy? A work that, when you cue it up or experience it in live performance–or, even more profoundly, perform it–invites you to a place you might describe as sacred? For many people that choral work is the All-Night Vigil by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

What if you are a dancer and were beamed into that special place when you first encountered the All-Night Vigil in a college music class? Meet Samuel Hobbs, artistic director of push/FOLD Dance Company. He heard the chant, with its rich sonorities and harmonies, and hoped to someday set the beautiful work to dance. The idea has been simmering for decades. 

On January 19, 20 and 21, his vision is coming to pass in his new creation, Vespers. And the choral performance partner for this premiere – live on stage with the dancers – is Portland’s oldest symphonic choral ensemble, Portland Symphonic Choir, under the direction of Alissa Deeter

In a recent interview with OAW, Hobbs was giddy just talking about how this collaboration came about beginning in (he checked his phone to confirm the date) March of 2022. Deeter and Portland Symphonic Choir were finalizing details of a collaboration with push/FOLD on Bernstein’s “Lark.” With the confidence of this foot in the door he popped the question to Deeter: Would she like to work together on the Rachmaninoff Vespers (using the colloquialized name for the All-Night Vigil)?

He sure asked the right choral conductor the right question. Deeter is as skilled on the music theater stage as on the choral podium. Two of her three university posts – at San Francisco State, where her task was to reinvigorate the opera program, and University of North Carolina Charlotte, where she initiated their musical theater certificate program – benefitted from her expertise and comfort with stage production. “But I got my first stage job”, she recalled with a little laugh, “at Ohio Light Opera (Cincinnati) because I could dance.” 

In musical stage production there are so many interlocking gears – stage director, pit conductor, costuming, scenery and lighting to name a few – and working together is key. “As a stage person, collaboration is the name of the game,” said Deeter. Her response to Hobbs’ proposal: a quick and enthusiastic yes!

Portland Symphonic Choir musicians are quite accustomed to being handed over to an orchestral conductor knowing that tempi, dynamics and mood may change. They most recently joined Salvador Brotons and the Vancouver Symphony for Puccini’s Missa di Gloria, and David Hattner and the Portland Youth Philharmonic for an astounding Beethoven 9th where the tempi reversed the rotation of the earth. Most of the musicians actually enjoy that process if they trust what they bring is being honored. This time the 90ish singers have placed half of their trust with Hobbs and know that Vigil is in good hands: his and Deeters, and those of the eight female members of the push/FOLD company in this performance.

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Ballet and liturgy

Let’s push pause for a moment. If we say “dance and instrumental music” your first thought is probably ballet, and choral folk can name and may have seen quite a few of those. How about dance to instrumental classical music not written specifically for ballet? Yeah, they’re out there but do any pop right to mind? Several Gershwin and Britten works have been used in dance pieces. Groundbreaking modern dance choreographer/dancer Doris Humphrey created numerous pieces on the works of Bach. Yes, the great choreographers choose instrumental works often.

Now, how about choreographed classic choral music? Must be some, eh? And which would those be? Hmm. Ah, ha! Here’s one that was done right in Portland. A 1997 collaboration between Portland Symphonic Choir and Oregon Ballet Theater on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a performance oft cited by former choir members as one of their most memorable. And then there was the time Choral Cross Ties singers under the direction of Bruce Browne sang (and posed while singing) Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei (choral transcription of the Adagio for Strings) for a dance by Minh Tran (1993, Lincoln Hall).

But why is it that searches for choreographed Christian liturgical music uncover very few publicly performed and reviewed works? Oh, there have been some: a few Mozart Requiems and a Britten War Requiem and even a movement or two of the All-Night Vigil. And American choreographer John Neumeier’s ballet on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion premiered in Hamburg in 1980. It was a major production then and still is. The Hamburg Ballet, still under Neumeier’s direction, performed the St. Matthew with the Los Angeles Opera. See some fascinating photos in a review of that work here and watch a brief video about the ballet here:

But do dancers and creators of dance stay away from the liturgical choral works on purpose? In a November, 2008, New York Times review Alastair Macaulay wrote “In general the genre of the danced Requiem/Gloria/Stabat Mater is a danger zone. Choreographers who know no better may rush in to invoke the full weight of Christian liturgy.” In this review, of choreographer Paul Taylor’s Poulenc Gloria, Macaulay was satisfied that this stage setting “responds intimately to the conflicting moods with which they (the words) are sung and orchestrated.” 

OAW reached out by email to Macaulay and asked him for further thoughts about Christian liturgy, as he put it, and dance. In return email he cited historical opposition to religious experience or biblical narrative being portrayed in theatrical settings. But he stated that his concerns about dances to Christian themes are due to “a Mozart Requiem, for example, in which the dance doesn’t begin to express what’s going on in the words and music.” Indeed it would be sad to have the great choral literature treated as stage decor.

Making sacred movement

While the above-mentioned Neumeier St. Matthew is a literal representation of the Passion drama, Hobbs says his Vespers is not. He has choreographed the music, taking it as his guide to the composer’s intention and choir’s performance as they bring the text to life. When he spoke of the arc of the work, to points of intensity, to mood shifts, it was clear that he appreciates and understands the work and Rachmaninoff’s devotional intention. 

Amy Leona Havin is an Oregon Arts Watch contributing writer for literature and dance. In a recent phone conversation with OAW she said Hobbs, with whom she has worked professionally, sees dance itself as sacred, as do many in the dance community. “For a lot of us here,” said Havin, “ it is personal expression, the movement itself is sacred; therefore Sam believes that he is MAKING sacred movement.” 

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Hobbs describes his own dance style as physical. His most recent company production was reviewed as gorgeous and powerful. “Modern dance style can sometimes be read as very sensual and bodily,” said Havin. But she knows Hobbs respects music and composes his own for some performances. “His music scores are beautiful; also a sacred act for Hobbs.” She is looking forward to seeing how the dance/choral performance is shaped to “create a playing field for both, in a production where it appears truly collaborative to the audience.” Havin will be reviewing the performance for Oregon Arts Watch. Watch this clip, provided by Hobbs, of an early rehearsal for Vespers. The dancers, Maile Crowder and Willow Swanson, perform to Movement 2 “Blagosloví, dushé moyá, Ghóspoda” (Bless the Lord, O my soul).

What was Rachmaninoff’s intention? Though not a churchgoer, Rachmaninoff had a rooted connection to the Russian Orthodox choral music he heard as a child, sitting in on services his devout grandmother attended. He became fascinated with chant. In his first Orthodox choral work in 1910 he set the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The All-Night Vigil followed, premiering in 1915. These are Rachmaninoff’s only liturgically based choral works. 

Ancient chants from the Obikhod are the foundation for 10 of the 15 movements; Rachmaninoff composed new chants for the other five. The chant melody of the beloved “Bogoróditse Dévo” (Ave Maria) is a Rachmaninoff original. The text is the liturgy from the Orthodox All-Night Vigil service. But the work was first performed on stage by the Moscow Synodal Choir – all male, adult and boy – and it remains a concert performance work, a practice that doesn’t seem to lessen its import to audiences. It probably draws more audience. Although, said Deeter “There are some who might feel that we shouldn’t be putting these works written on liturgical texts in the concert halls to begin with.” Well, if so then there is a whole lot of good choral music being sung on the proverbial streets of you know where. 

One of the leading scholars on Orthodox music, Oregon’s own Alexander Lingas, founding Director of Cappella Romana, commented on this dance/choral fusion in recent email correspondence to OAW. “I am certainly intrigued by the choral/dance collaboration. While Rachmaninoff’s Vigil has roots in Orthodox liturgy, from its premiere it has served as a whole mainly as a concert work. In that sphere, there are lots of precedents for integrating music with other media.” He concludes with a reminder of the etymology of the Greek choros. It can mean both choir and dance.

Production decisions are always carefully considered. In one well-respected recording, out of several dozen, Peter Jermihov (Gloriæ Dei Cantores, 2021) employs a protodeacon to render chant. In contrast, Robert Shaw in his ground-breaking recording (Festival Singers, Telarc 1990) considered but then chose not to use chant. Two performances, wonderfully different.

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Deeter, in close collaboration with Hobbs, will not use chant. It’ll be straight through, about an hour, with no pauses or oral annotations. But having the choir moving around will help maintain the energy level of the singers.

Wait, what? Yes, Hobbs is re-envisioning the traditional choral ‘stand and sing’ footprint in a few sections. Live music, live people. Indeed, it is an intriguing collaboration.

Paying homage to the prototype

Two leading choral music figures are featured in a podcast about the Vigil:  Charles Bruffy, Artistic Director of both Kansas City Chorale and Phoenix Chorale whose combined 2015 Vigil recording is widely praised, and Vladimir Morosan, a leading authority on Russian choral music and Founder and President of Musica Russica. You can listen to the whole interview here, but one statement that Morosan makes, albeit in reference to modern Orthodox artists, might also illuminate the ideal toward which our Portland artists are striving:

“The Orthodox artist works in a different way. He works with traditional materials and reshapes them according to his own particular gift, his own particular technique and one can see this parallel for example in icons where you can recognize images of, say, Christ or or the Virgin Mary or St. Nikolas that goes back centuries and you compare that with something that was written today, painted today, and you inevitably see the same person….it pays homage to the prototype.”

By wonderful coincidence of timing Portland’s Cappella Romana offers an exciting performance next month that showcases the “particular gifts and own particular techniques” of contemporary Orthodox composers. On February 9 and 10 “How Sweet the Sound: Black Voices in Orthodox Music,” featuring the gospel expertise of Portland’s Kingdom Sound Choir, showcases the work of composer/educator Shawn Wallace, who has set Orthodox chant to gospel choral style, with percussion and instruments, and Mother Katherine Weston who has set liturgical text over traditional gospel melodies. Watch for more OAW coverage of that special concert in the weeks ahead. Another modern performance paying homage to the traditional. 

“Great works offer great possibilities. They allow us to be malleable,” said Deeter. She spoke of things that should be carefully attended to – pronunciation of the church Slavonic, pitch, notes – but believes that what happens between the note heads is where people find the magic, find their space. 

And you just might find your space throughout this performance. Maybe it will hit you near midpoint, in Movement VII “Sláva v vishñih Bógu” (Glory to God in the Highest). Listen here to the Robert Shaw Festival Singers 1990 recording of that movement:

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Ah, what has Rachmaninoff given us! Believers, non-believers, listeners, singers, artists and dancers. He found his own devotional voice in 1915 and created a piece of choral perfection that cradles us in that space within ourselves. 

In the audience for these performances there will be so many of us experiencing both the musical composition and/or dance composition for the first time. Student dancers and patrons of dance, student singers and patrons of choral music sitting together – all open to the possibilities this fusion of dance and choral music can offer. What a great vibe!

One PSC singer confided that their spouse was having reservations about attending the performance because they loved the Vigil so much the dance might be distracting. You get that, right? Distracted or drawn away from your special connection with the Vigil

But there exists the possibility that you will be drawn toward a sacred space or even expand on the one you hold so dear. Hobbs and Deeter and the singers and dancers plan on creating a sacred space. Move into it with them. 

Deeter and Hobbs appeared this past Monday on KGW’s “Hello, Rose City.” Watch that brief segment here. Vocal soloists in this Vespers performance are Brandon Michael, tenor; Megan Conroy-Peters, soprano; and Claire Robertson-Preis, alto.

Rachmaninoff’s Vespers premiere by push/FOLD Dance Company and Portland Symphonic Choir is in Beaverton at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts on Friday, January 19, 7:30 pm, Saturday, January 20, 7:30 pm and Sunday, January 21, 4 pm. GOOD NEWS: They just opened the balcony for the Saturday and Sunday performances. Purchase tickets here.

FRIENDS ON TOUR

For dancer/choreographer Samuel Hobbs “there is movement in everything.” Elite vocal ensemble Chanticleer says, in the opening statement of their 2024 Winter Tour program, “every piece of the world has a sound”. 

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Yes, ‘tis the season to take in another energizing Chanticleer concert. The Pacific Northwest is graced by their extraordinary talents each mid-winter, thanks to Friends of Chamber Music. And this year the University of Oregon welcomes them to Eugene. They appear in Portland on January 19 and Eugene on the 21st

Do your tastes in a cappella choral music lean toward Renaissance polyphony? The 12 singers in Chanticleer always offer that option, this time in repertoire that harkens to a favorite composer of their early days, Heinrich Isaac. Contemporary sounds more to your liking? They will be performing a brand new work by their Resident Composer, Ayanna Woods, “I miss you like I miss the trees.” You can read their entire program notes here.

The Chanticleer we know so well is known to offer the unknown repertoire by the unknown composer, in this case Majel Connery. Wait, unknown? Is this the Majel Connery who is a sought-after vocal soloist; or perhaps the Connery who tours with art-rock band Sky Creature. Or is this the musicologist and “Music of Their Own” podcast host who champions the works of women composers, as in this interview with Sarah Kirkland Snider. She’s all that!

But Chanticleer wants you to know Connery the composer, using the movements of her song cycle “The Rivers Are Our Brothers” as support posts for their second half. Listen here to a Chanticleer rehearsal snippet of Connery’s work. Takes your breath away.

Of course, at the end of each concert, the artists of Chanticleer step into their “good friends” mode and bring their always superb covers of songs, some by their own members such as the nostalgic “Stardust” arranged by bass-baritone, Jason Graveley.

This is a smart group. And, by jiminy, they seem like really nice people. They are–according to Pat Zagelow, Executive Director of Friends of Chamber Music who sponsors their Portland visits–one of the easiest groups to work with. They are always on time, manage their own housing and transportation. Yes, they are strict, says Zagelow in recent email, about their numbers of services per day and about time between concerts. But gosh, they have to be, don’t they?

Chanticleer Music Director Tim Keeler explained why in recent correspondence with OAW. “We do between 90 and 100 concerts every year, all around the country. Sometimes all over the world. Singing and performing is its own challenge but traveling so much adds another layer of complexity.” They need, he continued, lots of sleep, lots of water and the ability to go with the flow in tense and tiring situations, supporting their colleagues when life and travel gets intense. But the singers also consider the positive aspects of touring – reconnecting with family and friends, new sites and amazing food – as some of the best perks of the job. 

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We thank them for reconnecting with Oregon each year! See you in concert, Chanticleer.

Chanticleer appears in Portland on Friday, January 19, 7:30 pm at Kaul Auditorium. FOCM tickets here. The singers’ Eugene concert is Sunday, January 21, 3 pm at Beall Hall, University of Oregon. Tickets can be purchased here.

While a few more vocal groups come into Portland, Tallis Scholars (April 18) and Voces 8 (March 6), some of our own choral groups will be venturing out. Of course, Cappella Romana, always in demand around the world, will hit the road to begin their touring schedule with Cleveland in April. In Mulieribus has an appearance set up on the Southern Oregon Coast. The Bach Cantata Choir is scheduled to travel to the land of their namesake and Festival Chorale Oregon is going to Italy. FCO has some slots open for singers if you would like to join in. More info is on their website. 

And the Portland Girlchoir will begin their summer tour with a NYC Carnegie Hall Concert, in which they will be joined by 19 or so adult members of Portland’s Aurora Chorus, with the girls continuing to Quebec City and Montreal. 

Watch for more insider tidbits on these exciting musical adventures in the months ahead.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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