Adventures in Classical Programming

by Glenn on August 24, 2017

When you program a concert of classical music, it’s tough to be creative. As an audience, we generally don’t like the unfamiliar—surprises can be dicey.

A typical evening might be a short and upbeat piece to start out the evening, a concerto of some type heading into the intermission, and a major symphonic work to close it all out. That’s seems to be the expectation or at least the common practice.

You can experiment with “new music,” which could be either music that is literally new or music that hasn’t become part of the mainstream canon, yet, but these tend not to be the works that get people to show up to concerts. Assuming limits of time and money, you go to hear things you like to hear. The unfamiliar is may be a delightful epiphany or a moment that leaves you wondering, “What was that?”

Recently, I heard some inventive and enjoyable programming from one of the BBC Proms. It took a couple of sittings (up to and then after the intermission), but I caught a replay of Prom 37, an all-Rachmaninov program. I think the announcer referred to it as an immersion.

The program I heard featured two familiar and wonderful works by Rachmaninoff, the Third Piano Concerto in d minor before the intermission and the haunting Second Symphony after. (These were the works that I imagine got people in the door.)

That program would be pretty traditional, except that both of these big orchestral works were preceded by a small choral work which then rolled seamlessly and immediately into the orchestral performance.

The choral group was the Latvian Radio Choir. According to the announcer, the program opened with the lights in the auditorium dimmed. The choir began singing in the foyer and then processed forward through the audience. They sang a chant that was part of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers).  The chant had an uncanny resemblance to the opening of the piano concerto.

There was a basic point being made, which was that Rachmaninov has a connection to the chant of the Russian Orthodox Church.

I tend to think of Rachmaninoff as a part of “Western” music history, but his music has ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and has an “Eastern”/“Byzantine” quality about it, including especially melodies which follow small intervallic patterns. It was wonderful to hear that direct connection.

I hadn’t listened to the piano concerto for ages. It was gloriously played here by Alexander Gavrylyuk accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Gavrylyuk was called upon to play an encore, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.”

Following intermission, the Latvian Radio Choir started things off again, this time with an Easter Chant which rolled into the symphony.

This was remarkable programming. It would have been just fine listening to the concerto and the symphony by themselves, but the choir added an other-worldly dimension to the proceedings. I’ve only come to be exposed to the music of the Orthodox Church late in life. It’s a remarkable experience.

I don’t know if I will have the time for it before it disappears, but the Latvian Radio Choir was presenting the All-Night Vespers in their entirety later that night for Prom No. 38.

Update:

The All-Night Vespers is pretty glorious listening. It’s in Russian, which goes right past me, but the music itself is gorgeous, the effect of which is like holding a sleeping puppy. It goes to work on you. You have to slow down. This is not great music to approach with anything like impatience—you simply won’t make it through. It’s well worth listening to. The Latvian Radio Choir features a rather straight choral tone—nothing operatic about the singing—which adds a kind of minimalist approach to the aesthetic. There’s nothing extra going on, just the pure sound of the Vespers.

The announcer describes this as “one of the most profound and transporting pieces of choral music in the repertoire.” It was the last major work Rachmaninoff wrote following the Russian Revolution and before he fled Russia to the West. The announcer said Rachmaninoff had stopped going to church by this time but he hadn’t lost his love for the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of the music Rachmaninoff appropriates from the 11th century. Others he creates as “conscious counterfeits.”

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