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An age-old sound, still revelatory

St. Petersburg's Capella Choir imbues 'Vespers' with centuries of emotion, imagery and drama during visit.

November 22, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Philharmonic once had Otto Klemperer as its music director, and that's impressive. The New York Philharmonic had Gustav Mahler, which is even more impressive. The Gewandhaus Quartet of Leipzig, Germany, which has been going strong for 194 years, is practically as old as the string quartet medium itself; Mendelssohn and Schumann are in its genes.

But the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir was formed in Moscow by Czar Ivan III in 1479; over time, both Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great sang in it. Now that's history!

No one, of course, can say just how much tradition has been passed down through the ages to the current Capella Choir, which has been in St. Petersburg ever since singing at the city's inauguration in 1703. But as newer singers join, they pick up the sound of the older ones. And hearing the Capella give a profoundly intense and moving performance of Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" at Royce Hall on Thursday night, one easily felt transported in time and space.

Royce has a relatively dry acoustic, but these deep Russian basses, excitable tenors, soulful mezzos and penetrating sopranos resounded as though the UCLA hall had miraculously sprouted an onion dome.

The Capella's current members range from their late teens to their 60s, and many look, from their expressive faces, to have come from various regions of the Urals. The conductor, Vladislav Chernushenko, is a demanding and colorful musician. Technically, the chorus is superb. Sonically, it is out of this world.

Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" are also known as the "All-Night Vigil." In fact, as a concert adaptation of elements and specific chants from the long Saturday night service of the Russian Orthodox Church, it lasts only about an hour. Few of Rachmaninoff's familiar fingerprints are in evidence, other than in its melancholy character.

With little counterpoint or traditional musical drama, the "Vespers" is such an austere work that in dutiful singsong performances by the likes of the Robert Shaw Chorale it can be dull and annoying to anyone not steeped in the rituals and melodies of Russian Orthodoxy. But the Capella's performance was revelatory.

The 13 sections of the Vigil include prayers and Psalms of the daily Vespers and Matins that during an actual service accompany specific actions. The "Hymn of Light," the fourth section, represents the lighting of candles and lamps in the church. It begins with a basso profundo chant, and Vladimir Miller made it sound Thursday as if it came out of the pitch-black bowels of the Earth. The ethereal, glowing response from the chorus was probably as close as massed high voices can come to capturing the impression of flickering light.

The most impressive aspect of the performance, though, was the way these singers could command utter stillness or rise to monumental climaxes. There was surprising and startling drama as the Capella invoked the mystical force of Resurrection in the central hymn, "Blessed Art Thou, O Lord." The sound of pealing bells, large and delicate; the sight of the amber light that suffuses St. Petersburg churches at dawn; and the feeling that our walk through life is a great mystery -- all are sensations this remarkable chorus also knows how to evoke.

Four encores demonstrated another winning side of the Capella. Infectious folk songs allowed several members solo opportunities; it was amazing to discover the great range of vocal character that runs through the highly polished ensemble. The spiritual "Soon Ah Will Be Done," Russianized, was hilarious but impressive at the same time.

All that was missing from a great evening was the texts of the "Vespers." UCLA Live, which presented the Capella, resists including texts in its programs. But this was, after all, unfamiliar stuff and in Russian. Not that most of the large and ecstatic audience seemed to mind. Standing ovations are common in L.A. But the proof here was afterward, as the crowd swamped the CD table in the lobby, cleaning the company out of its hard-to-find recordings in no time.

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