Conspirare gave a balanced, brilliant performance of this jewel of sacred choral music
Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, Fri., March 6, 2009
Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, San Antonio
Conspirare has been all over the map in recent months – in the best of ways: first going abroad to represent the U.S. at the World Choral Symposium; then back home celebrating a second round of Grammy nods, including a nomination for Best Choral Performance (which it lost but to the Berlin Philharmonic – good company to keep); and this month, showing up on PBS, where millions across North America will see the vocal ensemble's concert special. With a seminal year behind him, Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson brought his company of singers back to the sanctuaries of Central Texas to perform one of the jewels of sacred choral music.
When asked which of his compositions was a favorite, Sergei Rachmaninov named the Vespers – his setting of the formal Russian Orthodox vigil. History shows that Rachmaninov was not a religious man; he was, though, intensely patriotic. Written in 1915, as World War I began, the Vespers is intimate, solemn, and refined, a departure from the composer's typically emotive, sweeping style. With nine of 15 movements set to orthodox chants, the Vespers is also unabashedly Russian. Given the imminent march to the communist revolution that would take away his livelihood and ultimately prompt his immigration to the U.S., it is clear that the Vespers is as much an expression of Rachmaninov's reverence for his homeland as a profession of his faith.
Wrapped around the church's altar, dressed in black with a smattering of colorful shawls, the singers of Conspirare opened the Vespers with a crystal-clear crescendo into the glorious amen of "Priidite, Poklonimsya." What followed, movement after movement, was a balanced, brilliant performance, capturing myriad colors and nuances along the way. Rachmaninov gave the ensemble florid grandeur one moment, a tender solitude the next, and under Johnson's assured direction, the result was vulnerable and graceful.
The climax of the beautiful "Bogoroditsye Devo," the vigil's Ave Maria, came at the audience as a mushroom cloud of sound, magnificent in the moment but even more so in memory as the fleeting rush faded fast to its nostalgic resolution. This is what makes the Vespers so unique, as if the formality of the setting tempered Rachmaninov's rampant romanticism. It still leaks out, though, creating moments of light that filled every corner of the Laurel Heights United Methodist Church. Deep into the Matins section of the work, as in "Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi," the audience was also invited into the world of medieval Russia, at once raw, ominous, and rapturous.
The spare opening of the fourth movement exposed the performance's only recurrent issue. The sacred setting of the work calls on each section to meld as one seamless voice, and though well balanced within the ensemble, at times the tenor section lacked textural blend, barely noticeable but evident in the more exposed sections.
Rachmaninov reveled in exploring the extremes of range and volume in his music, and for this, the bass section was on full display. To close one movement, the section was asked to float down note by note to a tremendously low B-flat, at the dynamic level of a whisper to boot, and the basses responded to the challenge with amazing clarity, leaving many of us in awe. Notably, Johnson resisted any temptation to show them off. Little did he need to, nor the rest of his magnificent company, as we've come to expect such consistent musical excellence from Conspirare. Luckily, the geographic altar from which the chorus preaches continues to expand exponentially.