There's an old saying, "As God made them, he matched them," that might well apply to the happy collaboration of acoustics and Rachmaninoff's music at the Washington Cathedral last night. The Cabrillo Slavonic Chorus, a large community group from Santa Cruz County, Calif., opened the Cathedral's summer festival of nine Tuesday night concerts with the first East Coast performance of Rachmaninoff's huge a cappella "Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom," and if ever reverberation was welcome, it was here.
Anthony Antolini, who has prepared a new edition of the piece, conducted with a sure sense of the musical idiom. The soul of this music is in its sonorities and in the inflections of its text. It is relentlessly homophonic, hypnotically quiet and full of the mournful modal harmonies that color so much Russian music. The chorus, aided by the cathedral echoes, produced rich sounds and vibrant pianissimos, all couched in impeccable intonation. You couldn't discern the words in all that rich opulence, but since they were in Slavonic, an old form of Russian, not many in the audience would have understood them anyway.
As part of a Russian Orthodox service, this liturgy setting must he effective. In concert however there is not enough musical interest to last the hour or more it takes to perform. The Cabrillo Slavonic Chorus will travel to Russia in January to perform this liturgy as part of the celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church.