Saturday, May 11, 2013

Pacific Boychoir premieres Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil

By Douglas Neslund

What, you might ask? The title above cannot be true. Didn’t the Los Angeles Master Chorale perform the All-Night Vigil just recently? As did the Pacific Chorale?

So what forms a claim of “premiere” performance, you ask. Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote the work in 1915 to be sung by the Moscow Synodal choir comprised of boys and men. Therein lies the premiere aspect brought to Los Angeles for the first time ever by the 56 young men of the Pacific Boychoir of Oakland, with 29 tenors and basses provided by local professionals and alumni of the choir. The unfortunately smallish audience at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles heard the work as envisioned by the composer in 1915 and ultimately performed six times as its popularity in Moscow grew ever greater. Tragically, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 brought an end to public performance of religious music of any kind, but equally sad, an end to the Synodal choir itself.

The All-Night Vigil (also sometimes called Vespers) is an amalgam of traditional modal Znamenny chant amplified by sections composed by Rachmaninoff in the same a cappella style. The result is a finely woven tapestry of sound that varies endlessly in its employment of treble and men’s voices, utilizing the widest possible distribution and range throughout. Such writing makes the many entrances a challenge for choirs of any age. The music itself is simply gorgeous and in an ecclesiastical setting, serves the purpose of giving life to the varying texts of the 15 separate sections, including Eastern Orthodox versions of Ave Maria, the Annunciation, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and various Psalm settings.

Daniel Babcock, with a passionate, ringing, legato delivery, was the exceptionally fine soloist on this occasion, with an incipit by bass Edward Levy. A trio of alto choirboys: Sam Siegel, Zachary Salsburg-Frank and William Lundquist sang with gorgeous, Catalunian-like rich tone in No. 2, "Bless the Lord, O My Soul." 

When the music demanded, fortissimos erupted in volcanic heat, but a moment later, delicate, crystalline pianissimos reflected the shifting textual requirements. The effect is stunning, and the blend of  bright boys’ voices with the men is so different and so “right” the listener cannot deny its appropriate impact, truly a “premiere” for Los Angeles.

Maestro Kevin Fox, the Founding Artistic Director, kept his large ensemble in tight focus and the result was a series of dynamically beautiful phrasing that in a work of this level of potential disaster at every turn makes the resulting musical value ever more memorable. In preparation for this concert, Maestro Fox was aided in no small part by Assistant Director Marcia Roy and others at the choir school in Oakland. The audience was given a program containing the texts with English translation provided by Vladimir Morosan of Musica Russica.

After the final phrase, the audience sprang to its collective feet for sustained applause and cries of “sláva!” were heard. It was that kind of performance.

The Pacific Boychoir and men in rehearsal for the All-Night Vigil in Los Angeles
Residents of Northern California have an opportunity to hear this choir sing the All-Night Vigil on Friday night, May 24, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and on Saturday night, May 25, at The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland. Further information may be obtained at 


Debbie Mark said...

Great review; Great reviewer!

Douglas Neslund said...

Thank you, Debbie

NancyL said...

Thank you, Doug!

Christine Frederick said...

Doug, the reviews you wrote were superb and eloquent. Unfortunately
I wasn't at the performance, but
through your words, I can only wish
that I had been.

You are such a gifted man, Thank you for everything.

Sincerest Wishes, Chris