Composer of the Month

WFMT’s current emphasis on Rachmaninoff has been wonderful for Chorale. We have been “New Release of the Week” since last Sunday, and movements from our Vespers recording have aired each of the past five mornings—always about the time I am returning from my dog walk, in my truck, which means I hear the broadcasts. Other, wonderful recordings by professional ensembles have aired, as well, and it has been interesting, sometimes excruciating, to compare vocal sound, interpretation, idiomatic quality of approach. I have been proud of Chorale; and radio listeners seem to have liked them, as well: we have seen a dramatic spike in on-line sales of the CD. I have made three trips to the post office just this week! The station is playing far more than Vespers recordings; I suspect in fact that they are trying to cover Rachmaninoff’s entire output. Some favorites, like the piano concertos, the Etudes-tableaux, the Vocalise and other songs, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, are played repeatedly, in performances by a wide variety of musicians. I have loved this music, been moved and thrilled and stirred by it, ever since a high school English teacher played a recording of the Paganini variations during an exam—I was so taken with the music, I couldn’t focus on my test, and had to retake it, later (the teacher was sympathetic). The other day, inspired by WFMT, I sat at this computer for an hour, playing various versions of the Vocalise that came up on Utube—with unabashed subjectivity, I recommend Anna Moffo’s and Kiri Te Kanawa’s renditions. The stirring, emotional beauty of this music, presented in good performances, really bowls me over.

But last spring, in the process of working on the Vespers, I discovered something I had not known previously-- Rachmaninoff is a good, solid composer, not just an emotionally stirring one. Those fifteen movements are wonderfully planned and thought-out; the combination of the straitjacket of the historic Orthodox chant materials, with his imaginative manipulation of them, produces wonderful, complex, surprising music. I expect he is sometimes facile and self-indulgent in his piano compositions; but in the Vespers, craft and hard work are always evident, along with the melodic and harmonic inspiration for which he is celebrated.

Strangely—but typically, for me-- J.S. Bach popped into my head during my Vocalise orgy (isn’t everyone haunted regularly by Bach?) I thought—Bach composes music just as appealing and emotionally satisfying as this, and so much more, besides. This does not diminish Rachmaninoff; his gift is real, honest, profound, and I am grateful to know him. What hit me, though, was-- how could one be Bach, have this particular gift, and every other gift, as well? Put Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Verdi, Palestrina, in a pot together, and you still haven’t quite got Bach—he had it all.

By the way—Chorale will present Bach’s B Minor Mass next April, little more than a year from now. My fifth preparation as a conductor; perhaps my twentieth altogether, if one includes performances I have sung. I was so thrilled, the day the decision was made, I could barely contain myself. Chorale will celebrate it’s 10th anniversary during 2010-2011; what could be more fitting, than to commemorate this anniversary by preparing and performing the greatest choral/orchestral work out there. Just announcing this, tells people who we want to be.