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November 1, 2010

Weekend in review: Rachmaninoff's 'All Night Vigil' from Baltimore Choral Arts Society

The weekend's musical activity included a Baltimore Choral Arts Society presentation of a sublime a cappella work by Rachmaninoff, his "All-Night Vigil."

The last time the ensemble performed the score was in 2003, during the cool citywide Vivat! St. Petersburg festival initiated by Yuri Temirkanov (remember Vivat? remember Yuri Temirkanov?).

On that occasion, Choral Society music director Tom Hall talked all the way through it, providing a running commentary on nearly every one of the 15 movements in the piece. I never did understand his thinking then.

This time, for a concert Saturday night at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, Hall engaged actors Megan Anderson and Kyle Prue from Everyman Theatre to do readings chosen by Naomi Greenberg-Slovin. The readings were spaced out at intervals in the concert, allowing a few movements of music to be sung at a time.

All things considered, it represented

a great improvement over that last version, but Hall and I will continue to disagree over the need for, or appropriateness of, any spoken words in the "All-Night Vigil." (He's not likely to change his mind, given that he has added speech since the first time time he conducted a Choral Arts performance of the work years ago, when he commissioned poetry for the occasion.)

Saturday's dramatic readings included excerpts from Shakespeare, Chekhov and Gibran. Some of the introductory words setting up the readings seemed to take longer than the actual readings themselves, but the actors were pros, the pacing was good, the staging effective. If the words didn't add immeasurably to my enjoyment of the music, hey, maybe it's just me.

No question about the singing, though. That was really quite impressive. There's no place to hide in a cappella music, of course, especially in a piece as richly textured as the "All-Night Vigil." Hall's choristers articulated with admirable clarity, nuance and smoothness of blend (I'm not exactly fluent in Church Slavonic, the language of the texts, but the pronunciation sounded persuasive to me). Intonation was almost always spot-on; dynamic contrasts were effectively achieved.

Hall rounded up enough basses to move successfully into the subterranean realm Rachmaninoff called for in the fifth movement. At the other extreme, the sopranos made a particularly beautiful sound. Here and there, individual voices popped out where they shouldn't have, but the overall cohesiveness of the singing, not to mention Hall's sensitive shaping of the score, yielded consistent satisfaction. Tenor soloist Jim Kuang-Cheng Li produced a generally warm, sturdy tone.  

SUN STAFF PHOTO (by Monica Lopossay)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:39 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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