19 January 2016

Cappella SF: Russian music in the rain

Under weeping skies last Sunday, looking out the train window at bare black branches or the occasional flurried clusters of dark green leaves tossing in the wind, I went into San Francisco to hear Cappella SF sing an all-Russian program at the Mission Dolores Basilica. It was obviously a day suited to a Russian mood.

I discovered at Cappella SF's last concert that the sound is very good in the back of the Basilica (near the entrance, that is), so that is where I planned on sitting. The doors were open already when I arrived a little before 4:30 for the 5:00 concert. I went in and then out the side to the men's room, which is right by the old Mission cemetery, which was padlocked for the night by then. I stared for a bit at the rain falling on the headstones under the trees, which is an enjoyably gloomy sensation.

Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin had arranged a nicely varied program, with pleasing obscurities amid the more or less familiar beloveds. The sounds of the pieces themselves worked well together, making a program that was coherent but changeable enough to avoid monotony over the almost ninety minutes of the program. The sound of the chorus itself just seems to get better and better, with something clear and precise yet mellow about it, a sort of amber luster and clarity. The program started with some of the (to me, at least) obscurities. First up was Cherubic Hymn No. 7 by Dmitri Bortnyansky, who lived in the late eighteenth - early nineteenth centuries. He studied under Galuppi and spent a decade in Italy; I've heard some concerts the last few years of music from eighteenth-century Russia that make the case for a sort of European style that gradually gave way in the nineteenth century to national schools. Bortnyansky seems to straddle that divide with his hymn to the trinity. The next two composers, Pavel Chesnokov and Alexander Grechaninov, straddled a different divide, between Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, but both their pieces (Salvation is created by the former and a wavelike setting of The Lord's Prayer by the latter) continued the religious theme and ethereal sound of the music.

The next piece was by a contemporary, Sergei Viluman, and though it was secular, a setting of Alexander Blok's poem Night, street, lamp, drugstore, the text and sound were so meditative and sombre and philosophical that it actually took me a while to realize that it wasn't an officially religious work. By now the rain was falling so heavily outside that it was clearly audible in the basilica, reinforcing the choir ("You die – and then relive it all, the same restart, the same repeat; the night, the ice on the canal, the drugstore, the lamp, the street. . . "). Rainfall is one of the few non-musician-caused noises that I can stand during a concert, a point that was brought home to me in the next section, when three youngish women who had come in late (possibly just to get out of the rain) sat in the pew behind me and proceeded to whisper, giggle, and loudly turn program pages during Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance (Nos. 1, 2, 11, and 12). That's the disadvantage of sitting in the back. You get people like that there: the latecomers, the whisperers, the phone-checkers. The mood was ruined, but fortunately they left after the Schittke. I moved farther back anyway. And I had really been looking forward to the Schnittke. I just can't comprehend people who can hear such music and not be moved to, at a minimum, a respectful silence.

There was a little break for the chorus before the final number; Bohlin played a prelude (Op 23, No 10 in G-flat) by Rachmaninov. The chorus then sang Nos. 1 - 8 of Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, with some lovely solos by mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen and tenor Jimmy Kansau. The program notes promised some low basses here, and they came through, with that deep organ tone that sounds so essentially Russian, or so essentially like a certain conception of a certain Russia.

Cappella SF's next concert will be in May, again at the Basilica, but this time a concert of Norwegian music . As I said, their sound just keeps getting better, and this was a striking and moving concert (audience aside). Check out their next appearance (but please give a wide berth to the solitary man in black sitting in the back of the church!).


Michael Strickland said...

I was waiting for the fly in the ointment moment, and you did not disappoint. How dare those cretins ruin Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance (Nos. 1, 2, 11, and 12) [and talk about rainy day music!] with their babbling and shuffling and mobile device abuse? I would have given them the Death Stare until they understood Repentance.

Teresa VazGoodfellow said...

The older I get, the less tolerant I am of people who can't exhibit the proper decorum at a public event, especially where people are performing. I'm so annoyed that those stupid giggling morons didn't have sense to shut up! Sounded like a lovely evening in spite of their awfulness.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yes and yes. I should point out that the Death Stare did not work, nor did the Glare of Disgust. I should also point out that there seemed to be some fine solo work going on in the Schnittke by Matthew Peterson (baritone), and Jonathan Thomas, Ben Jones, Matthew Curtis, and Elliot Encarnacion (tenors), but it was lost amid the whispers and giggles. I'd say What is wrong with people but I'm afraid I already know.

At least it wasn't during the entire concert.