No one there will ever forget it—the moment the massed forces of the University Symphony Orchestra and Choirs launched into Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony with a tutti the size of a tsunami: “Behold: the sea!” And as the tidal waves of sound swept over Hill Auditorium, the idea was born in more than one listener: conductor and choral director Jerry Blackstone may very well be the hottest classical act in town.
Since he arrived at the U-M music school, Blackstone has rejuvenated both the school’s choral program and the University Music Society Choral Union, garnering praise from listeners and critics alike for his clear textures, crisp articulation, sculpted balances, and irresistible sense of momentum. On Wednesday, February 18, Blackstone and the University Symphony Orchestra and choirs return to Hill to take on another monumental late Romantic work: Sergey Rachmaninoff’s setting of Konstantin Balmont’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”—a massive four-movement choral symphony depicting the whole life cycle through the sound of bells.
By common agreement, it is Rachmaninoff’s greatest work. Even the hypercritical composer himself thought so: “I worked on this composition with feverish ardor,” Rachmaninoff told his biographer, “and it remains, of all my work, the one I like best.” One can see why. In every way, it appeals to his strengths as a composer and as a human being.
Born in northern Russia, Rachmaninoff grew up with the sound of bells—sleigh bells and church bells, alarm bells and funeral bells—and the tintinnabulation of bells rings in his instrumental music from first to last. But with Poe’s poem providing the metaphors, Rachmaninoff here translates the sound of bells into a language everyone can understand. Set for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists with chorus and orchestra, The Bells is Rachmaninoff’s largest-scale work, and despite being written at a white heat, it is also one of his most cogently argued. Every detail, from the flute trills at the start to the muffled basses of the end, takes its place in a wholly unified and immensely compelling structure.
But vastly more important than the work’s structure is its meaning. With a virtuoso compositional technique, Rachmaninoff expresses the essence of Poe’s poem—the sparkling exhilaration of silver sleigh bells, the sensual excitement of golden wedding bells, the stark terror of brazen alarm bells, and the doleful gloom of iron funeral bells. And though each movement is enormously affecting, it is in the finale’s closing pages that one hears Rachmaninoff’s own fatalistic voice speaking in the tones of deep eternity.
Also on the program is Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi, a wordless setting of portions of the biblical Song of Songs for viola, small chorus, and orchestra. Arguably the English composer’s sexiest work, its voluptuous melodies and opulent harmonies have to be heard to be believed.