Grant Gershon, ever vigilant
If you ask a concert-goer to name his or her favorite Rachmaninoff piece, the leading contenders likely would be the Second and Third piano concertos, the Paganini Rhapsody, the Second Symphony, Vocalise or maybe the Symphonic Dances. Rachmaninoff himself would have begged to differ. His two favorites were the choral/orchestral “The Bells” and the a cappella choral “All-Night Vigil” — neither of which has caught on in most places other than recordings.
Yet at the Los Angeles Master Chorale, “All-Night Vigil” is solidly on the playlist. Grant Gershon first programmed the piece in November 2006, and to open his 10th anniversary season as music director of the Master Chorale on Sunday night, he offered it again — and got a full house at Walt Disney Concert Hall for his trouble.
Yes, full houses are increasingly becoming the norm for Gershon and the Master Chorale during his term here. But it’s one thing for the popular Mozart Requiem — which opened the 2009-10 season — to fill the house, and another for this still-little-known artifact of Rachmaninoff’s fascination with the Russian Orthodox service to do the same. Gershon has built an audience that trusts him, and that trust was repaid with an immaculately prepared and sung performance of an outof-the-ordinary piece.
There is some confusion about the work’s title; the piece is most often labeled on CDs as “Vespers” — although “All-Night Vigil” is a more accurate translation of the Russian title and “Vespers” only refers to the first six of the score’s 15 sections (the last nine are “Matins”). Luckily for the impatient, “All-Night Vigil” never lasts all night; not counting pauses, Gershon’s relatively swift performance clocked in at about 56 minutes.
Most would not be able to guess the composer of this music in a blindfold test, for Rachmaninoff was drawing upon centuries-old forms of chant, while inventing sections of his own in this manner. Yet the composer of the voluptuous piano concertos manages to color some of this music with a sensuousness that undercuts the austere atmosphere a bit. There is even a passage in “The Six Psalms” in which the choral harmonies spread out into a sustained chord that sounds lusciously modern.
While the Master Chorale’s bright, buoyant, American sound in Disney Hall could not have been mistaken for that of an edgier, bass-rich Slavic choir, Gershon brought other valuable insights to the table. He emphasized dynamic contrasts while always maintaining a continuous flowing line. With slightly clipped phrasings, he made the refrains in “Blessed Art Thou, O Lord” sound like Russian folk songs — an effect I’ve never encountered in this work.
As an encore, Gershon led another ecclesiastical Rachmaninoff rarity, the 18th section of “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.”
SUNDAY: Grant Gershon conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil.”