Ars Nova Singers Launches Its 30th Year with Rachmaninoff Masterpiece
A preview by Gwen Gray
Ars Nova Singers is kicking off its 30th season with a bang. Or rather, the rich, colorful, transcendent chants of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil — which for classical music lovers is a pretty big bang.
There will be two opportunities to catch the performance: Oct. 9, 2015, at Denver’s St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and Oct. 10, 2015, at Boulder’s First United Methodist Church.
Also known by the title Vespers, Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil was instantly admired upon its unveiling in 1915 in Russia. Written for the Russian Orthodox Church, with 10 of the movements based on existing church chants, the piece was composed as World War I erupted and Russian society began to fall apart around Rachmaninoff. Just two years after their All-Night Vigil was debuted, he fled Russia, never to return.
“In composing the Vespers, he was taking these beloved melodies and sending them out to a much broader world, infused with the pathos of the events of his time,” Ars Nova’s artistic director, Thomas Edward Morgan notes.
In fact, Rachmaninoff loved the composition so much and felt the chants so embodied the spirit of his homeland that he requested the piece be played at his funeral.
The music continues to transfix today’s audiences. And while Morgan normally prefers to explore previously unperformed material with each Ars Nova show, he’s content to make an exception with Vespers. (The group performed and recorded the piece in Pueblo in 2004.) “I think it has a rare emotional power and a rich sonic beauty. It doesn’t yet fall in to the category of ‘over-performed.’ It’s been extensively recorded, but due to its challenges, it’s still fairly rare to hear it live,” he says.
Among those challenges is the fact that the composition is written in Church Slavonic. Fortunately, the group has found a performing edition with an accessible transliteration system, and a couple of the chorus members know Russian. (Morgan says he’s even begun dreaming in Church Slavonic.) The music itself poses some challenges, too. Morgan says, “Though it is tonal and fairly straightforward, the nuances of gesture that Rachmaninoff details in the score require careful preparation and an ensemble dedicated to details.” An expanded Ars Nova ensemble — 52 voices — will perform All-Night Vigil in the upcoming concerts, with additional singers coming from as far away as Argentina to participate.
Looking Back: 30 Years
So how did this talented group of singers come to be in Boulder, Colorado? Thomas Edward Morgan came to Boulder to pursue a master’s degree in composition at the CU College of music. While there, he performed with the Boulder Bach Festival chorus, where he met a number of other choral singers. At that time, in 1985, there was only one organized, auditioned chorus in town (the St. Cecilia Singers), so Morgan, with friend Amy French, held auditions and the newly formed group began rehearsing in January of 1986.
Since then, Ars Nova Singers has gained attention as one of the best choral ensembles in the country, consistently drawing audiences large enough to keep them operating in the black for three decades (no small feat for a small, non-profit arts organization). Collaborations with acclaimed artists such violinist Edward Dusinberre in 2014 and the Kronos Quartet in 2006 have aided their efforts. And their affiliation with Boulder composer Bill Douglas has helped them reach a broader audience, with recordings that have seen worldwide success.
Still ahead in 2016 is a project called Shared Visions, which has been 20 years in the making for Morgan. The performance is the result of a chain of artistic expression, starting with a gallery of selected visual artworks, which then were interpreted by poets, which were in turn turned into an anthology of new choral music — all by Colorado artists, all facilitated by Ars Nova. They will perform Shared Visions in April.