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Spring 2009 Program Notes

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Illinois Arts Council

Program Notes for the March 1, 2009 North Shore Choral Society Concert

The All-Night Vigil (Всенощное бдение), Opus 37, a cappella, was written and premiered in 1915. It consists of settings of texts taken from the Russian Orthodox All-night vigil ceremony. It has been praised as Rachmaninoff's finest achievement and “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church.” It was one of Rachmaninoff’s two favorite compositions along with The Bells, and the composer requested that one of its movements (the fifth) be sung at his funeral. The title of the work is often translated as simply “Vespers,” which is both literally and conceptually incorrect as applied to the entire work: only the first six of its fifteen movements set texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers. Today’s performance, however, includes only the second movement, text from Psalm 104, “Bless the Lord, O my Soul.”
The All-Night Vigil was written in less than two weeks in January and February 1915, and was first performed in Moscow in March of that year, partly to benefit the Russian war effort. It was received warmly by critics and audiences alike, and was so successful that it was performed five more times within a month. However, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of the Soviet Union led to a ban on performances of all religious music, and on July 22, 1918 the Synodal Choir, which premiered the work, was replaced by a nonreligious “People's Choir Academy.” Arguably, no composition represents the end of an era so clearly as this liturgical work.
– Notes from wikipedia.org
Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Jewish immigrants from Russia. His life and works are sufficiently well-known that we need only mention the many fields this musical polymath excelled in: composing over an astonishing range of styles and idioms, from opera and symphony to Broadway musicals; conducting, most notably holding the directorship of the New York Philharmonic; lecturing; writing; producing television shows; and on and on. He was also the first American-born composer-conductor entirely taught and trained in America to establish an international reputation. His all-too early death in 1990 has deprived us of one of the most energetic and dedicated musicians to have graced our musical world.
His Chichester Psalms was commissioned for the 1963 Three Choirs Festival, an annual event held in Chichester, England. The first performance took place in New York in May of that year; the Chichester performance occurred three months later.
The work, which employs the original Hebrew texts, begins with an exuberant setting of Psalm 100 (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”). The second movement, which features a boy soprano, draws on the words of Psalm 23, interrupted abruptly with the lines “Why do the nations rage?” from Psalm 2. The third movement continues with a peacefully flowing setting of Psalm 131 which quotes material from the opening movement, and it closes with a tranquil setting of the first verse of Psalm 133. Today’s performance features a reduced instrumentation consisting of organ, harp and percussion. The NSCS last performed this work in 2004.
– Program Notes © 2004 by Donald Draganski
 “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.” These are the opening words of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, commonly known as the Requiem Mass (from the Latin requies, rest or repose). This plea for eternal peace is found in the Second Book of Esdras, a scriptural text widely accepted during the early centuries of Christianity, but now numbered among the apocryphal books of the Old Testament. The Requiem Mass has its theological basis in the Catholic doctrine that the living, by prayers and sacrifices, can come to the-aid of-souls in Purgatory. This notion is embodied in the central section, the Dies Irae, which vividly portrays the day of wrath, the last judgment, threatening the faithful with Purgatory and the pains of Hell — punishments which are ameliorated only by the intercession of the Saints and by the fervent supplications of those left behind to pray for the souls of the departed. The other sections of the Requiem, by contrast, deal with a blissful resurrection and reunion through the mercy and atonement of Christ. This unsettling juxtaposition of comfort and terror has resulted in composers choosing to emphasize now one, now the other. The Requiems of Berlioz and Verdi exploit the potential drama and excitement of the Hell-fire sections, whereas the Duruflé and Fauré settings both omit parts of the Dies Irae section, concentrating entirely on the comforting aspects of the Requiem Mass. (It should be pointed out that, since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has also downplayed the Dies Irae by limiting its use as an option on All Souls’ Day and at funeral services — a loss of theatrical excitement, perhaps, but a net gain in serenity and hope.)
The name Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) is not very familiar to most concert goers. This was largely due to the composer’s slow and painstaking methods as well as being his own severest critic, for barely a dozen titles have seen the light of publication, and most of these are for solo organ.
Duruflé was appointed organist at the Church of St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris in 1930, a position he held until his death. The Requiem, which was commissioned by the Parisian publisher Auguste Durand, was dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father. Completed in 1947, the piece makes extensive use of actual chant tunes from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead. “In general,” Duruflé writes, “I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style, and have tried to reconcile as far as possible the very flexible chant rhythms within the exigencies of modern notation.”
Duruflé treats the Requiem text in a restrained and intimate manner. It is scored for a full orchestra, chorus and organ. The organ plays a particularly important role, for (quoting the composer once more), “it intervenes not to support the chorus but to underline certain rhythms, or to soften momentarily the too human orchestral sonorities. It represents the idea of comfort, of faith, and of hope.” The NSCS last performed this Requiem in 1988.
                                                                                                         – Program Notes © 1988 by Donald Draganski


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