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Clarion Choir sings Rachmaninoff, 31 December 2022
Photo credit: Oren Hope

Concert Review (NYC): Clarion Choir – Rachmaninoff, ‘Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom’ (31 December 2022)

Something about traditional Eastern Orthodox liturgical music gets into the bones of certain composers. I get it. The imposing chants, the interplay of solo and choral voices, the minor keys and power-chord energy – composers can absorb the vaulted drama of it all and weave new music that speaks explicitly to those traditions.

Recently, for example, I experienced Benedict Sheehan’s Vespers, which premiered this past fall. Sheehan took inspiration from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1915 All-Night Vigil (often called Vespers), itself a setting of Russian Orthodox liturgical texts.

A Wartime Reminder of the Great Cultural Achievements of Russian Artists

All-Night Vigil may be the best-known of Rachmaninoff’s religious works, but it was by no means his only engagement with his native church’s rituals. Though not a particularly religious man, he had crafted two liturgical choral works before the Vigil, and the Clarion Choir performed the first of these, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York City on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It proved a solemn yet rousing welcome to a year in which Russia will continue to dominate the news for reasons sadly unrelated to its centuries of great music and literature.

Joining the choir and singing the role of the Diakon (Deacon) was bass-baritone Fr. Leonid Roschko, himself a protodeacon in the Eastern Orthodox church as well as a singer of rich declarative power. His sonorous basso led the call-and-response sections, which bear some of the starkest reminders of the composer’s sculpting with tradition: The prosy solo chants rest on one note or just a few, while the choir’s responses range from earthy to angelic and from key to sometimes-surprising key.

Tenor Andrew Fuchs projected a confident, burnished tone in the role of the Celebrant, while soprano Nola Richardson shone in the lullaby-like “We Sing to Thee.”

Rich with men’s voices, including an especially strong bass section, the Clarion Choir uncovered the depths of the music. Through 17 movements, echoes of timeless devotion mingle with the “spirit of modernism” that Russian ecclesiastical authorities objected to when the work premiered in 1910.

Rachmaninoff and the Texts

Much as Bach did in his religious settings, Rachmaninoff fits the music to the sense of the words. The “In Thy Kingdom” movement, for example (“Blessed are the meek”), combines delicacy and assertiveness to illustrate how divine justice will elevate the “peacemakers” and those “poor in spirit.”

The choir under the direction of Steven Fox was consistently sensitive to these contrasts and shadings. The music of the “Holy God” movement builds mightily as the choir proclaims God’s glory “both now and ever, and unto ages of ages.” In one of a number of cascading openings, the sopranos begin “The Cherubic Hymn,” with the other sections joining in descending pitch order; in contrast, the choir lifts off together to declare the Trinity “one in essence and undivided” in the “A Mercy of Peace” movement.

That the text is in Russian adds to the solemn mystery for us Westerners. We’re used to hearing, in opera, Romance languages and German, and Latin in Catholic liturgy, even if we don’t understand the words. Russian feels more foreign.

The Clarion Choir’s concerts brought out Rachmaninoff’s revelatory fusion of old and new – or what was new in the early 20th century. I suspect the composer would have been pleased with this performance, held just across town from his old digs on West End Avenue.

The Clarion Choir will release its recording of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil at a January 27 concert, also in NYC, as part of its celebration of the composer’s 150th birth anniversary in 2023. See the website for the Clarion Society’s full schedule.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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