On September 7th, 2014 Choral Arts Philadelphia will perform one piece of music that holds an absolutely special place in my heart: Vespers (All Night Vigil, Op. 37) by Sergey Rachmaninov.
Besides cherishing a direct native connection to the Russian music and unsurpassed love for Sergey Rachmaninov as a person and a composer, I treasure this piece because it represents a life-altering discovery I made in my mid-20s .
During the first 24 years of my life in the Soviet Russia, after having studied classical music and its history at a full-time music school for eight years, I had no idea about the existence of the Vespers or any other sacred music by any other composer whatsoever! This is how well this information was locked away from public eye in the Soviet Union. And since I never knew to ask the question, I never looked for answers.
Fast forward now to the early 9o’s, my first few weeks in the United States where I was brought on a contract to interpret for a group of Russian dancers. The day I got my first paycheck, I went to the Tower Records store (remember those?) to look for recordings of my favorite composers, including Rachmaninov and Bach.
As I searched the Bach and Rachmaninov sections, I came across some odd titles like St. Matthew Passion, B-Minor Mass, Vespers, The Bells. “What’s this?” – I said to myself in total bewilderment, because I knew every piece of music those guys ever composed. I had to buy the Vespers CD, out of curiosity (I now think it was actually a cassette tape – remember those?). I played it on my Walkman (remember those?)… And I cried. I cried because I felt betrayed. Then I cried some more because life was SO MUCH MORE BEAUTIFUL than I had imagined. Because the humanity had the gift of the Vespers all along!!!
Ironically, that same year, late 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Christmas was finally officially announced as a national holiday in Russia. It was openly celebrated for the first time in over 70 years, on January 6, 1992.
This landmark event was followed by the arrival of massive country-wide restoration process of the entire Orthodox culture: from the beautiful architecture and commencement of industrial church bells production – to religious education, faith-based literature and declassification of archival church documents. And it inevitably meant that the Orthodox music, and with it all other sacred music, that had been muted in Russia for over 70 years was finally given back to the people it was written for.
The Rachmaninov Vespers was performed in a public concert in Moscow on that first Christmas Eve of 1992.
Every time I get to sing this work – and this will be my third time – it is a transcendental life event, an experience of the highest spiritual, physical, emotional and mental order which simply can’t be described in words.
Singing it here in the U.S. for the American audiences fills me with great honor and gratitude for their responsive energy, for their respect to this music and their thirst to hear more of it. And singing it with Choral Arts Philadelphia is going to be an amazing experience!
We performed it in 2012 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Here is my favorite excerpt:
IF YOU GO:
Gretna Music Festival
Sunday, September 7, 2014 at 7:30 PM
Pre-concert talk by the festival founder Carl Ellenberger at 6:45 PM
More information at www.choralarts.com