Bel Canto chorus sings transcendant Russian works

The Bel Canto celebrates music director Richard Hynson's 25th year with Rachmaninoff's "All Night Vigil" and a commission from Alexander Levine.

By - Mar 12th, 2013 02:38 pm
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Richard Hynson, then.

The Bel Canto chorus marked the 25th year of Music Director Richard Hynson’s tenure with an ambitious pair of Russian choral works at the St. Joseph Center Chapel on Sunday afternoon, March 10th.

Composer Alexander Levine

Composer Alexander Levine

BCC commissioned Russian-born Alexander Levine, now living in the United Kingdom, to write a new work for this occasion. At All Times, and At Every Hour is grounded in the passion of the Russian Orthodox faith. Traditional Orthodox prayers of praise and supplication, in English translation, fill the four sections.

The work opens with a new day, “Thou hast raised me from bed and sleep.” Sections of the chorus gently join a sustained harmony. “Enlighten my mind and heart and open my lips.” The momentum steadies as voices enter and exit, but maintain the continuity of a distinctly Russian Orthodox choral sound. Voices add layers of sound then gently fade away.

Choral voices ebb and flow with more energy. “Let the light of thy countenance be turned upon us.” The tone is bright, but drama is subdued. A prayerful attitude holds throughout. A lone triangle, standing in for a liturgical bell, punctuates the a cappella singing.

“O Christ God, Who art long suffering, plenteous in mercy and most compassionate.” As this section ends – “Compass us about with Thy holy angels .. to the knowledge of Thine unapproachable glory” – the voices layer in more complex ways. The triangle mimics pealing bells. The substance remains Russian but with a brighter, almost English, palette.

In the fourth prayer – “enlighten the eyes of our understanding” – the tone becomes more ethereal, reminiscent of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères. This has come some distance from the traditional Russian Orthodox beginning. As the work concludes, “open our mouths and fill them with Thy praise,” the Bel Canto boy’s choir supplements the soprano voices with a high pitched refrain. Steady bell tones from the triangle introduce a beat and more celebration.

Bel Canto Chorus

Bel Canto Chorus – Photo by Andy Stenz

Levine’s work fit well with the central work for the afternoon – Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil. The deeply felt religious text, the rich harmonies, the full sound and gradual development matched the program and the chapel setting. This was the epitome of an effective, approachable work – grounded in Russian Orthodox tones and brought gently into a more contemporary, still intensely worshipful light.

Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote All Night Vigil (Vespers) while still in Russia in 1915. The work is solidly within a Russian Orthodox tradition (which the Russian Revolution, which Rachmaninoff would flee, soon broke). Rachmaninoff never wrote another sacred work.

All Night Vigil comprises 15 pieces drawn from a number of chant traditions, which provides variety across the nearly an hour of music. Some sections are hymns with verse and refrain, others recitatives of glory to God. Several draw upon earlier traditions of Russian chant. Complex harmonies break into 11 parts in the seventh section. The usually somber mood brightens in a cacophony of voices in the eighth. Closing sections maintain the mix of tender reverence and more celebratory praise. A steady flow of harmony grounds the work. The full chorus is engaged for most of the entire work.

Two sections feature soloists. Colleen Brooks brought a rich, deep alto to the second section. Her voice captured the plaintive tone of Russian Orthodox works and stood out above the chorus. Nicolas Scott Pullen’s clear tenor was more easily lost in the hall.

Part of the challenge for Bel Canto was to achieve the profound, weighty bass characteristic of Russian choral singing. Recorded works open with a bass line projecting below the harmonic entrances of other sections in the manner of floor-resonating pipes of a large pipe organ. This resonance was less apparent in the Bel Canto presentation. In the fifth section, Rachmaninoff isolates the basses as they step down to a B-flat three octaves below middle C. Only a few BCC men could complete the descent. But Bel Canto sustained a clear, inspirational tone throughout and managed a very difficult Russian vocabulary well. A well-balanced presentation and care to match the changing character of the various sections transcended the length of the work.

The steady pace of the harmonic sound filled the hall of the St. Joseph Center Chapel with an underlying resonance that does not allow echoes or overload in the space. But this is not as bright a hall as St Josaphat’s Basilica; it encourages a more mellow sound, with just enough resonance to bolster the sound and not enough echo to cause chords to overlap and clash.

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Music director Richard Hynson

The concert celebrated music director Richard Hynson’s 25th anniversary season with the Bel Canto. Hynson is fourth to lead the group, which dates to 1931; his predecessor had a 30-year tenure.  Hynson seems ready to eclipse that record. He was honored at a post-concert reception for his passion for music and his commitment to bringing that passion to the community as well as to the “family” of the Bel Canto chorus.

The Bel Canto concludes their spring season with two performances of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, at 7:30 p.mSaturday, May 18, at the  Oconomowoc Performing Arts Center and at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at Christ King Parish in Wauwatosa. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will serve as house band. See the Bel Canto web site for tickets and additional information.

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