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Illuminating Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, a Pinnacle of Russian Sacred Rep

In a classical music world obsessed with anniversaries, be they grand or modest, the 150th birthday of the Russian émigré composer Sergei Rachmaninoff has inevitably drawn notice. Just as inevitably, commemorations have tended to focus on his war horses: the symphonies, piano concertos and solo piano works.

It seems to have fallen to Steven Fox and his excellent choirs to tend to Rachmaninoff’s motley but treasurable body of choral works. The sacred ones, particularly — with their flowing yet restrained lyricism and none of the bombast or sentimentality often associated with the composer — represent the very best of Rachmaninoff.

On Wednesday, Fox, the artistic director of the New York-based Clarion Music Society, will return to his alma mater — Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. — to lead the Clarion Choir in Rachmaninoff’s exquisite All-Night Vigil, a pinnacle of the rich Russian Orthodox repertory. They will repeat the performance on Friday at Carnegie Hall.

Fox, 44, first conducted the work — commonly called the Vespers, after a liturgical service included in it — as part of a senior project at Dartmouth in 2000. He also handled the logistics — simple enough, you might think, because Russian Orthodox practice bans musical instruments, using only voices.

But those voices must be special, combining virtuosity with smooth blend. The basses, in particular, have to travel comfortably and sonorously below the clef, and typically, professional ringers are needed to fill out an amateur performance. (Clarion will feature Glenn Miller, the current go-to American basso profundo, in its two performances.)

And to boot, the text is not quite in Russian but in antiquated Old Slavonic.

“I can’t say I knew exactly what I was doing at that time,” Fox said in an interview. “There was a point about a week before the concert when I felt overwhelmed. I remember calling my adviser in tears and saying: ‘It’s too much. I can’t keep track of all the details.’ But leading up to the performance, even during it, I just felt calm. That really was the moment I discovered that I wanted to pursue conducting as a profession.”

Fox has since made specialties of Russian Orthodox music in general and Rachmaninoff in particular. He and Clarion have presented the Vespers often at New Year in New York and recorded it beautifully for Pentatone.

The performances this week are just one part of Fox’s yearlong celebration of the Rachmaninoff anniversary. At New Year, he led Clarion performances of the composer’s other great sacred work, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. And in March, he conducted the Cathedral Choral Society, of which he is music director, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a stirring rendition of “The Bells,” Rachmaninoff’s tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, at the National Cathedral in Washington.

Still to come, in November, are the cantata “Spring” and “Three Russian Songs,” with Clarion at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, where Fox lives.

Might Fox worry about the appropriateness of celebrating a son of Russia so deeply rooted in its culture as Russia wages war on Ukraine?

“I did have misgivings,” he said. “My main concern was singing liturgical music, given the church’s role in what is happening now. But as I thought more about Rachmaninoff’s story, I thought in a way it relates to what many Ukrainians are experiencing. He kind of kept politics at arm’s length for a long time, but at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, he said: ‘I have no choice. I have to leave.’”

In the end, Clarion added a program note for the New Year performances of the Liturgy: “There is a terrible war taking place in the part of the world from which this beautiful music comes. As we sing tonight, we pray for peace in the New Year.”

And Leonid Roschko, an Orthodox priest and a basso who sang the Deacon in those performances, added a prayer to the Liturgy: “That Thou mightest enlighten with the light of Thy divine wisdom the minds of those darkened with hardness of heart, and protect the people of Ukraine from any harm.”

On study and work travels to Russia before the invasion, Fox honed another specialty, Baroque music. He founded Musica Antiqua St. Petersburg, which called itself the nation’s first period-instrument orchestra. He also unearthed what he calls “the earliest known Russian symphony,” from about 1771, by the Ukraine-born Maksym Berezovsky.

Back in New York, Fox took the lead in reviving the Clarion Music Society, which had fallen idle shortly after the death of its founder, Newell Jenkins, in 1996. Fox took it over in 2006 and, while expanding its range and pushing it to new heights of virtuosity, he furthered his own ventures into early music, notably including that of Bach.

So when the New York Philharmonic asked him to cover for Jaap van Zweden during a run of Bach’s towering “St. Matthew Passion” in March, he was eager to do it. No matter that rehearsals were to begin the day after the “Bells” performance in Washington.

“I know the piece, and it would have been hard to say no,” Fox said. “Jaap and I got on very well. I admired his intensity. I thought he knew the score really well, and yet every time I went back to his office, he was studying it more, preparing.”

Van Zweden reciprocated the sentiment: “Steven Fox comes from the same school of interpreting Bach that I do,” he said in an email. “His excellent ears and good ideas were a real asset. I have asked him back next year when we do the Mozart Requiem at the New York Philharmonic.”

And Fox continues to till Russian soil. Spurred by the renowned music publisher Vladimir Morosan, Fox has been exploring music by Alexander Kastalsky. For Naxos, he recorded “Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes” with Clarion, and prepared Clarion and the Cathedral Choral Society to take part in Leonard Slatkin’s recording of an expansion of that work, “Requiem for Fallen Brothers,” with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

Morosan has described Kastalsky as “a seminal figure upon the landscape” of the early 20th century. Yet he remains so obscure in the West that he didn’t even register in the 2001 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. What other rarities might Fox and Morosan unearth?

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