Two things about this weekend’s Esoterics concerts should make South Sounders sit up: The Seattle-based a cappella choir is singing music a century older than their usual repertoire, and they’re bringing it to both Tacoma and Olympia. But the real drama of the upcoming concert “Bdenie” (Russian for “vigil”) is that it expands the choir to 48 singers, twice its usual number, and includes a dozen basses who get to descend to the depths of B-flat two octaves below middle C.
Yes, the concert features Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil,” an hourlong work based in both Russian Orthodox liturgy (Vespers, Matins and Prime) and Rachmaninoff’s own sweeping Romantic harmonies. To break it up a little, the Esoterics will alternate the choral movements with solo Orthodox plainchant.
With the choir expanding to 12 parts, it’s a rich sound from the triumphant opening to the bell-like “Alleluiya.” But the really spine-tingling part is the basso profundo line written in the fifth movement, which Rachmaninoff requested be sung at his own funeral. Much of Russian choral music has low bass notes, but here the basses roll down a descending passage to that low B-flat.
“It’s one of those things you really look forward to,” says low bass Gus Blazek. It’s his first concert with the Esoterics, but he’s sung individual movements of the “Vigil” with other choirs. “And the reaction you get from the rest of the choir when they hear you sing those low notes. … I really enjoy it.”
The other fun part, says Blazek, is that “Vigil” lets the basses shine.
“There are places where you can sing the chant melody, using your good bass sound, that’s really fun,” says Blazek, who also plays double bass. “It’s like being a bass player.”
Rachmaninoff wrote the “Vigil” in 1915, a response to the suffering and chaos World War I had brought to Russia. By the end of the revolution, though, the piece was banned as being too religious, and it fell into obscurity. Rachmaninoff emigrated to the United States, where he died without the piece being sung again, and it wasn’t until 1965 that a recording was made.
Now, it’s a highly popular piece, but not often sung in its entirety: It’s all in old Church Slavonic, and it’s an endurance test for any choir. This makes it prime fodder for the Esoterics, known for their virtuosic singing of ultra-contemporary pieces in multiple languages. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the piece, almost to the day.
That all makes “Bdenie” an unusual concert in the South Sound, where the choir will perform it at both Christ Episcopal, Tacoma, and St. John’s Episcopal, Olympia.
“It’s such a lush style … very symphonic,” Blazek says.