Hearing RAchmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil

If you attended the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on May 26, 2018, you will find these words a poor substitute for your memories of the event. If you did not, let me try to describe for you what it was like.

We sat in rows of wooden chairs under the steep arc of a mosaiced cathedral ceiling. The lights were on. We were all awake, and the cushions were not soft enough to induce drowsiness (as sometimes happens at an evening concert…). The stage, if you can call it that, was simply the stone steps built into the cathedral floor, leading up to the altar area. The choir wore black. There were no special effects.

The 25 musicians filed out from a door at the side, carrying their music and smiling at us. Their faces showed anticipation and focus. They were already poised, already concentrating on the first note. There were no instruments. There was nothing at all except the acoustic space, the choir, and a gifted conductor.

The music began.

It was immediately transcendent. One moment, I was sitting in a chair holding a program. The next moment, I was gone.

This music is like water. Deep, clear, abundant water that flows into every opening. You hear it inside yourself, in all the holy spaces you sense are present behind your ribs and between your ears. It was a kind of immersion that is difficult to find or describe here on this planet where gravity is a fact and we expect pressure, even strangulation, to result when we are filled so completely with something outside ourselves.

I am not a mathematician, so you will forgive me when I abandon numerical sense and say the sound was 100% natural, bodily even, and 100% ethereal, shockingly intense and utterly, weightlessly peaceful. The paradox draws the mind to Christ, a resurrection in which all creation is lifted up – our lungs, our ears, our vocal chords, the wet, sinuous workings of our physical instrument baptized and redeemed in the celestial grace of this prayer they are so beautifully created to offer up.

The audience sat still. In the pauses between sections, no one spoke. We were totally absorbed. Time wandered away from us, and when the music ended, we rose as one body. It was the most spontaneous standing ovation I’ve seen in a long, long time.​