Sunday afternoon in Walt Disney Live performance Corridor, composer and pianist Nicholas Britell performed a riff on Rachmaninoff as a shock encore to his Los Angeles Philharmonic live performance of movie music. The group cheered with rapid delight, so recognizable is his theme to the HBO collection “Succession.”
Three hours later, 80 members of the Los Angeles Grasp Chorale assembled on the stage to carry out an “All-Evening Vigil.” The vigil was that of the Russian Orthodox Church in solemn worship from nightfall to daybreak. The music, the viewers, the atmosphere, couldn’t have been extra totally different. I wouldn’t be shocked if I have been the one one at each live shows.
One factor was the identical, nevertheless. Rachmaninoff. Make that two issues. Not solely is that this incense-laden solemn “Vigil” by the identical Russian composer who impressed Britell, however the work itself can also be a rare instance of Rachmaninoff riffing. Whereas remaining true to his supply, he reworked a standard Orthodox liturgy right into a choral masterpiece of transporting rapture.
Rachmaninoff’s “Vigil” doesn’t, after all, final all evening. The marginally brisk, magnificently illuminating efficiency led by Grant Gershon wanted solely a bit over an hour. However the composer used conventional melodies and invented a number of of his personal in the identical fashion. He revered the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church, one among which is the disavowal of musical devices, lest they distract from worship.
Even so, Rachmaninoff’s “Vigil” is not any extra an all-night church service than the music to “Succession” is a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. He as a substitute limned the expertise of a Russian Orthodox vigil into an paintings. This was the primary common live performance by the Grasp Chorale because the COVID-19 pandemic started, and Gershon advised the viewers that the rating, written in 1915 throughout World Warfare I, got here from a time of trial. Its 15 sections replicate the passage from darkish evening to a brand new day, which displays what we, and choruses, have been dwelling by.
Choruses have been hit notably arduous by the pandemic. Singing fulfills a communal want in practically all societies, because the Italians reminded us by standing on their balconies and singing in casual togetherness to maintain their spirits up throughout lockdown. Singing and spirituality are, moreover, ever one. All through historical past, now we have communicated by track to no matter deity occurs to be available.
Instrumental ensembles might nonetheless considerably operate in the course of the pandemic, with gamers masked or separated by plastic obstacles, however for a lot too lengthy, a novel coronavirus made convening choruses an unthinkable act of spreading probably lethal aerosols. Because the L.A. Phil returned to the Hollywood Bowl in the summertime, the poor Grasp Chorale — all the time a fixture at these live shows — couldn’t be employed for security causes.
Decided to make the Grasp Chorale’s live performance reentry significant, Gershon centered solely on the unimaginable efficiency of unvarnished massed singing. Basses dropping all the way down to their lowest tones and sopranos reaching for elevated highs, in addition to all of the nuances in between, turned a present of our humanness.
On this, Rachmaninoff makes worship luscious. He applies harmonic lushness to exotic-sounding outdated chants. He eschews counterpoint — there aren’t any “Messiah” revelries of intersecting components. It’s all principally homophonic, with each singer on the identical web page, however but a person amassing into an entire.
Darkish evening on this “Vigil” isn’t half dangerous. Welcoming chants are repeated a number of instances with blessings galore, rising in enthusiasm. The attract of alleluias is inescapable. Erase out of your creativeness these gloomy czar-laden cathedrals. Already by the fourth part, Rachmaninoff exults in “Gladsome Gentle.” By the top, blessing turns into second nature. In a last hymn of thanksgiving, salvation is promised and musically delivered.
This, although, will be boring stuff, one lugubrious part after one other, because the “Vigil” comes throughout on many an uninspired recording. None of it sounds faintly like Rachmaninoff, who turned so common that he grew to hate the showy C-Sharp Minor Prelude for which he was recognized. Dig a bit and you’ll, though not simply, acknowledge his harmonic handiwork in his choral writing. However it is advisable hear it dwell and in an amazing acoustic area to completely sense how Rachmaninoff’s wizardry reworked reverberating voices into orchestral sounds.
That’s how the Grasp Chorale made all of it appear when Gershon carried out a lovely efficiency of “Vigil” eight years in the past to rejoice the refrain’ fiftieth anniversary. This time, he transcended magnificence and customary the form of transparency that made it attainable to pick particular person voices. After so many months aside, the singers approached every part as new and contemporary and totally different from what had been.
When breathy, the refrain jogged my memory of the gong that ended Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (which additionally quote “Vigil”) in Susanna Mälkki’s efficiency of the composer’s final work at her L.A. Phil live performance three weeks in the past at Disney Corridor. Mälkki made positive that gong had the gusto of avant-garde percussion.
That’s the place Britell is available in. He took the overplayed prelude and created one thing fashionable, a form of succession of the prelude. It’s thus within the spirit of Rachmaninoff’s personal succession of a Russian Orthodox service. On Sunday and on the heels of Britell, the “Vigil” served not solely as a beacon of Rachmaninoff’s time but additionally of ours.
Welcome again, Grasp Chorale. You’ve been missed.