Piece: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Premier: March 10, 1915, Moscow
The first piece I ever conducted in front of a live chorus was "Priidite, poklonimsya," the first movement of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, one of the masterworks of the a cappella repertoire. It begins with a sustained, unison "amin" (Russian for amen) and my professor had stressed to me the difficulty of achieving a clean entrance. He himself had struggled to get it right with our choir. I was quite nervous standing in front of my singing colleagues. Student conductors weren't a standard part of the experience for any of us so they were all watching me in curious anticipation. I brought my hand down and they all came in, perfectly. I was so surprised that I lurched a little, but I controlled my beat. The main body of the piece is quite a challenge for a beginner, switching meters - unmarked in the score - every two measures. We made it through together but I don't remember much else. The moment that stayed with me, that will probably always remain with me, was that first, perfect entrance. I expected many emotions from the experience: fear, anxiety, relief. What I did not expect was the thrilling rush of power. I brought my hand down and people sang. Wow!
The All-Night Vigil is often mistakenly referred to as Vespers. Only the first six of the 15 movements are from the Vespers service. Movements 7-14 are from Matins and 15 is from The First Hour. Our professor was a Russian choral music specialist and we performed several of the movements during my college career. I would imagine that over the years, he's covered all of them. It is also a piece my father has sung as a member of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. That group made a recording of the work in 1987 at the National Cathedral, under the baton of Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich.
I love several of the movements for different reasons. #1, of course, is forever tied to the experience described above (we didn't do the chants in the beginning).
#2 is my favorite as a listener. It is slow and luscious, with that dazzling final note for the basses. I imagine myself lying in a meadow, staring up at a universe of stars. (This clip's a particularly gratifying find for me, given the group and its conductor - recorded a couple decades too late for this blogger to have been involved)
#9 was my favorite to sing - wonderfully dramatic. The second tenor solo was one of my first solos in the college choir.