The power of choral music lies not just in its majesty and grandeur, but in its melding of a cross section of humanity, some professional and some perhaps merely gifted, to produce together a sculpted work of art. A work such as the Vespers by Serge Rachmaninoff, full of mysticism, devotion, drama and spiritual yearning, is the perfect vehicle for showcasing the range and depth of choral music. To the gratitude of a large and appreciative audience, the Bach Society of St. Louis delivered in all categories Sunday at St. Stanislaus Church downtown.
Now in his 31st year as conductor, A. Dennis Sparger has always directed the Bach Society with consummate skill, but his talents, and those of each singer onstage, shone with heightened brilliance at this performance. Rarely would a listener imagine that a crescendo or decrescendo could produce a spiritual effect, yet that was the case in this presentation. Even seasoned listeners likely found a new and deeper appreciation of the capacity of the human voice to enliven a spiritual setting. Regardless of whether each of us follows a traditional Christian path, or whether we might follow the path of Judaism, Buddhism or some other spiritual path -- or perhaps no path at all -- the music of Rachmaninoff's score speaks directly to the heart.
Life was often not easy for Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), even though he ultimately triumphed over his critics and crippling lack of self-esteem. Perhaps he found a measure of solace in composing religiously-inspired music. At first hearing, the score of the Vespers may seem like a whirlwind of sound that carries the listener away to a different realm. Familiarity with the work, though, leads one to pause and experience each turn of the melody and each rise and fall with deeper perception. At a time when interest in the Eastern Orthodox churches is rapidly increasingly around the world, a work such as this provides a glimpse into the texture of Orthodox practice.
The title Vespers is somewhat of a misnomer, in that Vespers refers to evening prayer. However, Rachmaninoff composed an "All-Night Vigil," designed to be performed prior to holidays, that combines evening prayers with morning prayers (matins). Performing the work poses the challenge of learning to enunciate Church Slavonic, the sacred language of the Russian Orthodox Church. Dennis Sparger is well-known for his detailed attention to proper diction. Assisted by tutors from Russia and Ukraine, the Society chorus demonstrated a high degree of accuracy and careful observance of linguistic nuances. (Having a very slight Russian background of my own -- well, I can attest that the overall effect, to me at least, sounded as authentic as any reasonable listener could expect!)
Tenor Keith Weymeier was featured in several of the fifteen chorus that make up the Vespers. His voice is warm and radiant, and powerful enough to resonate throughout the sanctuary of St. Stanislaus. Weymeier seemed comfortable with his diction and at home with the score.
Shawn Neace, bass, was soloist on the opening invocation of the work. His deep projecting voice set the tone with a particularly characteristic Slavic accent. Similarly, alto Alison Neace, soloist on the ensuing "Bless the Lord, O My Soul," possessed a beautiful dark register that seemed well-tailored for a Slavic spiritual work.
Under Sparger's direction, the chorus demonstrated a solid blend and well-honed phrasing. Dynamics were particularly stunning. Sparger was superbly assisted by the hard work and dedication of the singers themselves, pianist Sandra Geary and assistant accompanist Cynthia Johnson. One of the great beauties of choral music is its highly collaborative structure that unites artists from all walks of life into a single unified whole.
Special thanks also to the congregation and staff of St. Stanislaus Church for opening their door to support such a serious and important project as this performance. The near-capacity audience for the March 12 performance demonstrated that classical music is alive and well in St. Louis.