Listening to and singing Sergey Rachmaninoff Vespers (All Night Vigil, Op. 37) always brings about so much emotion, feeling of joy and connection with my culture, and sense of pride for my native Russia.
This a capella choral work (premiered over 100 years ago, in 1915 in Moscow) holds an exclusive special place in my heart because discovering the existence of the Vespers became one of the most profound events of my life.
I spent the first 24 years of my life in Soviet Russia. While in school, I also received a vigorous music education, attending a 7-year regional music school, studying classical piano, singing, music theory and history.
When it came to vocal studies, we learned much about Russian and European operas and romances, we sang many patriotic songs with our school choir. However, we were never taught about the vast treasures of sacred vocal music, for example Bach Cantatas or any of his Passions, or Mozart's Masses. This information was locked away from the public eye in the Soviet Union. And when you don't know about existence of something, you don't know to ask questions about it.
Now, let's fast forward to January 1991, my very first weeks in Philadelphia, USA where I had been brought to interpret for a group of Moscow dancers on an East Coast tour. The day I got my first paycheck I went straight to one of the Tower Records (remember those stores?) to look for music CDs and cassette tapes (remember those?) of two of my most favorite composers: Sergey Rachmaninov and J.S. Bach.
As I searched through the volumes of the Bach and Rachmaninov recordings, I came across some odd titles: St. Matthew Passion, B-Minor Mass, Vespers, The Bells. “What in the world is this?” – I said to myself in total bewilderment, because I thought I knew of every piece of music those guys ever composed. Out of sheer curiosity, I purchased the Rachmaninov Vespers recording. I brought it to my hotel room and started playing it immediately on my Walkman (remember those?)...
I listened to it from start to end without a break.
And I wept.
Because I felt hurt and betrayed. Hurt for my people's depravity of the true history. And if this divine music had been hidden from us, what else was hidden, waiting to be discovered?
The tears just kept coming. Now I knew that life was SO MUCH MORE BEAUTIFUL than I could imagine. Yes, the world was better because the humanity had the gift of the Vespers all along!
Ironically, in that same year of 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Orthodox Christmas was finally officially acknowledged and pronounced a national holiday in Russia. On January 6, 1992, it was openly celebrated for the first time in over 70 years. The Rachmaninoff Vespers was performed in a public concert in Moscow on that historical Christmas Eve.
This landmark event was then followed by massive country-wide immersion of Orthodox Christian culture into Russia's life: from the restoration of collapsed and destroyed cathedrals and revival of industrial technologies to produce church bells - to religious education, faith-based literature publications and declassification of myriad archival church documents. This inevitably meant that sacred music, as a genre, muted in Russia for generations, was finally returned to the people it had been written for.
Every time I get to sing the Vespers it is a transcending life event, an experience of the highest spiritual order which simply can't be described in words but only felt with the heart.
Singing it here in the U.S., along with my non-Russian speaking choir friends, for the grateful American audiences, fills me with greatest joy, honor and gratitude for their responsive energy, for their sincerity and respect for this music, for their thirst to hear more of it.
In 2012, Choral Arts Philadelphia (where I sang) performed the Vespers at the magnificent space of Cathedral Basilica of SS Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Here is my favorite excerpt:
[BLOG REPOSTED FROM August, 2014]