What a surprise was in store for us as we approached Sunset Center on Sunday evening to hear a performance of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil,” more often known as “Vespers.” We observed a long line of somewhere between 100 and 200 people waiting for the doors to be opened. It is possible that the Carmel Bach Festival may also have been surprised by this event’s popularity, since this performance was a “general admission,” rather that a reserved-seating, event.
I expected only a modest audience of approximately 400 would turn out to hear a seldom performed liturgical work by Rachmaninoff, but by the time the performance began at 8:30 pm a huge audience of well in excess of 600 had been seated. Although Vespers is not an obscure or unpopular work (over 60 recordings are listed on Amazon.com), this was to be the first time I was hearing a live performance, and I would expect it might have been the same for many in the audience.
Rachmaninoff mentioned to a friend after going into exile in the west how much he missed Easter services in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At precisely midnight the first church bells to break the silence would then be joined by others until the glorious sound of bells from many dozens of churches produced a thrilling cacophony, that once heard could never be forgotten.
Since we were hearing a performance in a concert hall, not a Russian Orthodox Church, there were no bells, no incense or elaborately garbed clergy, there was only the sound of mixed voices a cappella. Everything contributed to a kind of purity about this performance, and it turned out to be an extraordinarily moving experience.
The stage at Sunset Center was filled to the brim with members of the Carmel Bach Festival’s Chorale and Chorus. Candles had been lit on stage (I am not sure how that got past the city Fire Marshall, since open flame on stage is not something you see often in Sunset Center), and it added a liturgical ambience to the event.
The Chorale and Chorus were magnificent! Andrew Megill was on stage to conduct the event, although he had ample assistance from John Koza who prepped the Chorus through many rehearsals. The supertitles by David Gordon contributed greatly to our understanding of the text.
Perhaps canticle number five, the Nunc dimitis, is the most famous because of the ending scale in the bass descending pianissimo to the low B-flat. Perhaps we didn’t have “Russian” basses, but those we did have took us down the scale, and it was still impressive.
Is there anything more beautiful than an a cappella choir creating hushed moments of great intensity in long drawn out soft endings where you almost hold your breath enjoying the final moments as if you never want them to end? We had some moments like this in canticle number two, “Blessed is the man,” and number six, “Rejoice, o virgin.”
There were also stirring climatic moments in canticle number six, and in canticle number nine, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord” (with an impressive brief solo by tenor David Vanderwal). The final canticle, “To Thee, the victorious leader,” was a magnificent ending to the Vespers. The audience responded with great enthusiasm for the Chorale, Chorus, and especially the fine work by Andrew Megill.
This concert seemed to prove there is an audience for a cappella performances, and this is further confirmed by Chanticleer’s experience in filling the Carmel Mission Basilica on two consecutive evenings every Christmas season. Oh, how I would have loved to hear this performance of “The All-Night Vigil” at the Carmel Mission.