‘In the darkest days of the pandemic, as I was sitting at home, it occurred to me that 2023 would be a significant year – the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth. Would I live to see another anniversary of such importance? Perhaps if I lived to 90! So, I thought to myself, “If we ever get though this, I’m going to celebrate properly.”’
Steven Fox, music director of New York’s Clarion Choir, is speaking to me in a restaurant just a stone’s throw away from 505 West End Avenue, the stately New York apartment where Rachmaninov and his wife Natalia eventually settled after fleeing the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Fox is telling me about his very special project for 2023 – to conduct all of Rachmaninov’s major choral works. ‘I had no worries that orchestras would celebrate the symphonies and that pianists would perform the concertos, but so little attention is given to his choral works in general,’ he continues, ‘and they were his favourite works. The two works he was most proud of at the end of his life were the All-Night Vigil and The Bells – he even requested that part of the Vigil be sung at his funeral.’
Fox is a Russian music specialist, having studied the Russian language at school and at university – and subsequently making several trips to St Petersburg and Moscow during his tertiary studies at New England’s Dartmouth College and London’s Royal Academy of Music. The first time he heard Russian spoken by a teacher at his New York high school, he fell in love with its ‘dark and mysterious sounds’ and instantly gave up French so he could immerse himself in the exotic and captivating dialect.
His first trip to Russia was in 1998, in the days of Boris Yeltsin. ‘It was a difficult time as the rouble had been devalued, but it was also very exciting, as there was no ceiling on artistic experimentation – it felt a bit like the Wild West,’ he says. ‘That’s when I fell in love with Russian music – I saw amazing performances of Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Prokofiev for just a dollar at the Mariinsky Theatre, and experienced the wonderful connection between the people and their music. I had profound conversations with taxi drivers – their composers were like heroes.’
Fox went on to combine his other great love, early music performance, with his newfound interest in Slavonic music on successive trips to Russia, and at the age of just 21 founded the country’s first period orchestra. ‘I heard beautiful performances of Mozart, Handel and Bach in Russia, but at the same time the playing was overly Romantic and heavy,’ he says.
A chance encounter with a small, forward-thinking ensemble from Moscow, who were experimenting with period bows and playing with ‘great energy’, was all the incentive he needed to establish his group. For the next few years, it grew and evolved – moving beyond the standard fare by Bach and Handel to embrace little-known Russian music of the 18th century, written for the court of Catherine the Great. It’s testament to his vision and drive that the orchestra still performs in Moscow to this day.
But the exchange of ideas went both ways, and Fox’s desire to bring Russian music and culture back to New York took shape in earnest following another fortuitous encounter – this time, with a board member of the Clarion Music Society, a reputable New York-based period orchestra, founded in 1957 by conductor Newell Jenkins.
Despite its standing, the ensemble had been dormant for the past ten years, so Fox set about rebuilding the orchestra – and adding to this a choir. As a freelance tenor, he was in the perfect position to assemble a group of singers capable of meeting the challenges of performing in Russian. ‘If I was performing with singers I liked, I’d take note,’ he says, ‘and I really thought about the sound of the group – how the individual voices would blend. I also tried to pick singers who I knew were sharp on the uptake – so even if they didn’t have experience in Slavonic music, I’d take them if I felt they had the right type of voice.
‘And then we spent a good amount of time working on the language together in rehearsal. I like to think that there is a Clarion sound, but of course we mould this to suit different repertoire – and languages have a sound of their own. When singing Slavonic music, we often talk about adding a little more darkness to the sound than we would in, say, Gabrieli, which has an Italianate brightness to it.’
Since their formation under Fox in 2006, the Clarion Choir and Orchestra have been building their reputation as first-class performers of Russian repertoire throughout the US and Europe, and in addition to releasing two Grammy-nominated albums of music by Rachmaninov’s mentor Alexander Kastalsky in 2017 and 2020, the choir also released Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil on the Pentatone label in January – 20 years after Fox’s first performance of the work with his fellow students at Dartmouth. There are also plans to record Rachmaninov’s other sacred work, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, later this year.
Fox has also established an annual custom of performing Russian Orthodox music to mark the new year – initially, in 2012, in Trinity Church Wall Street and more recently in the Clarion’s new home, the Church of the Resurrection on East 74th Street. ‘The audience have become part of our regular crowd,’ he says. ‘There are some devotees of Russian music, but there are also a wider group of music lovers who enjoy the idea of listening to choral music at this time of year.’
2023’s Rachmaninov celebration began at the larger Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral with a performance of the Liturgy, and will be followed by a special performance of the All-Night Vigil at Carnegie Hall in May. In March, Fox also hotfooted it to DC’s Washington Cathedral to conduct his other chorus, the Cathedral Choral Society, in The Bells, alongside the Isle of the Dead with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And in November there will be further performances of Spring and the Three Russian Songs, again with the Clarion singers.
So, what are the challenges of performing the two liturgical works? Both are a cappella, and presumably there’s nowhere to hide any imperfections. ‘The All-Night Vigil features four different types of chant, and it’s very rich,’ explains Fox. ‘Such is the level of complexity that I’d describe it as “vocal orchestration”. Each movement is its own work, with a singular character – some are hymn-like, while others are polychoral with different textures happening at the same time. And the extremes of range and tessitura are tested at the top for sopranos and tenors, and at the bottom for the basso profundos. Our recordings of compositions by Rachmaninov’s vocal adviser Kastalsky have helped us to get to the heart of the work – Rachmaninov shared his manuscripts with Kastalsky, as he respected his knowledge of chants, but you can still sense Rachmaninov expanding from where Kastalsky left off.
‘As a way of breaking down the complexity and richness for audiences, we often perform the original Kievan and znamenny chants between movements, because then you can hear how he integrated them – that’s the way we’ve also recorded the work. The Liturgy, on the other hand, is more straightforward – the text is very clear and could almost be sung as part of a service, but in its simplicity, it is stunning.’
As the two works have very different characters, Fox is choosing to record them in different spaces – the All-Night Vigil was recorded in the Church of the Resurrection, and the Liturgy will be recorded in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. ‘In all our recordings we like to capture the beautiful, natural acoustics of the spaces in which we sing,’ he says. ‘For the All-Night Vigil we needed a brighter, more energetic space with a lot of clarity, as there’s so much detail. But for the Liturgy we can go for more atmosphere and luxuriate in the sound.’
Rachmaninov had stopped attending church services by the time he wrote the Liturgy in 1910 and All-Night Vigil in 1915, and his ‘spirit of modernism’ was condemned by the Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities, who refused to sanction the performance of his Liturgy as part of their service. But for Fox, Rachmaninov’s deeply ingrained sense of spirituality was evident throughout his career. ‘Early on in his life, Rachmaninov’s grandmother took him to church services, and this stayed with him,’ he explains. ‘It’s not just his liturgical works that demonstrate that influence, but his orchestral works, too. The Symphonic Dances quotes the All-Night Vigil, and you can hear the Dies irae in the Isle of the Dead. Then there are ringing bells in many of his works. They’re a powerful symbol.’
But just as religion seeps across from his liturgical to secular works, so too do vocal qualities infiltrate his orchestral pieces – and vice versa. If the All-Night Vigil can be described as ‘vocal orchestration’, there’s also a ‘mellifluous quality’ to works such as Isle of the Dead, which Fox believes ‘informs the fluidity of his writing’. To ignore the vocal works in Rachmaninov’s anniversary year would be remiss – for these were central to his identity as a composer.
Fox on his ‘other’ choir
I’m conducting The Bells with the Cathedral Choral Society and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the National Cathedral in March. The Washington Chorus isn’t a professional choir – it’s a volunteer chorus made up of around 120 singers who perhaps sang in school, but who went into different professions. It’s a wonderful ensemble to conduct, as it’s so very different from the Clarion Choir, which is much more intimate, so it allows me to take on really big, expansive repertoire.
The Cathedral is absolutely awe-inspiring – with its stained-glass windows which refract the light so beautifully, it’s a building we really got right. It’s also the perfect location to perform The Bells, which is very dramatic, with a marvellous text by Edgar Allan Poe, translated by the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont.
Though the choral part isn’t as complicated as those of Rachmaninov’s liturgical works, it is difficult to sing well, and the orchestration is very complicated. But the first movement, about the beginning of life, is so joyous – like a recollection. And hearing the bells combined with that marvellous baritone at the end, as we move towards death, is so incredibly moving.
Photo: Isabelle Provost