Thanks to lots of practice, the singers were well drilled in the pronunciation of an unfamiliar language: Church Slavonic.
The ensemble offers "town and gown" folks, mostly amateurs, opportunities to sing major choral works. Conductor Beverly Taylor has consistently drawn upon a wide range of literature, and her choice this time was a piece not often performed or heard in our country: Vespers, or The All-Night Vigil (Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye), Op. 37, Rachmaninoff's setting of liturgical texts for the night before the morning of Easter Sunday.
Best known as a performer and composer of piano music, and a producer of important orchestral music, Rachmaninoff was also committed to vocal writing, both solo songs and choral pieces, most of which are based on Russian folk sources. In 1910 he created a major setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysotom, Op. 31, the basic eucharistic Mass of the Russian Orthodox Church. Then in 1915, he composed Vespers. intended more as a concert work than a piece for practical liturgical use.
Rachmaninoff gave the piece 15 sections, 10 of which use as their musical core examples of medieval chant melodies, rather in the way Monteverdi used western plainchant in his Psalm settings in his Vespers from 1610, only more so. For the most part, the writing is for four-part choir without accompaniment. The textures are heavily chordal rather than contrapuntal, but they have enormous beauty and power. The whole assemblage lasts about an hour.
The Choral Union tends to have a very large force of vocalists. In this case, there were 125 singers identified in the program. Taylor divided the group into three choirs: a central one divided into voice sections and two others that faced each other, with the singers in mixed arrays. She and her graduate assistant conductor, Adam Kluck, took turns on the podium.
What struck me right away was the care that had been taken to drill the singers in the pronunciation and articulation of the Church Slavonic in which the texts were written and sung. Making allowances for their singing in a language quite alien to them, the choristers managed quite creditable diction.
More problematical, however, were the particular demands of the choral writing. As is so common with American choirs, especially amateur ones, women heavily outnumber men -- in this case, 78 against 38. The women sounded lovely and were well drilled. But the heart of Russian choral music is its basses, and native Russian ones have power and depth that can drill holes in concrete floors. The Choral Union's men tried hard but simply could not plumb the vocal depths needed to produce a convincing Russian choral sound.
In four of the work's movements, there are small passages for soloists. Those heard here were drawn from the choir and, unfortunately, they proved quite inadequate both vocally and stylistically. Less of a problem was the initial intonation, delivered by Fr. Michael, priest of Madison's Assumption Greek Orthodox Church. After that bit, he went back to his regular place in the bass section as Rick Vanderhoef.
More broadly, Taylor and Kluck simply had an unwieldy and unbalanced body of singers, which made it difficult to produce an idiomatic Russian choral style. In full-bodied passages, especially fast ones, the chorus made some magnificent sounds, but in softer sections things sometimes blurred and sagged; the feeling of deep religious faith just was not there. The program booklet gave English translations of the texts but, sadly, no background notes.
Such criticisms are perhaps beside the point, though. Taylor gave her choral army what was, I am sure, a truly memorable singing experience. Plus, she introduced the Madison public to the most important of Rachmaninoff's choral works, which is also the supreme masterpiece of Russian Orthodox music and one of the great choral masterpieces of music in general.