The Classical Station’s interview with Steven Fox for Preview!
Interview with Steven Fox
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credits: Paul B. Jones)
This week, The Classical Station features Steven Fox, the conductor of The Clarion Choir, as our Preview! guest.
Rob: Steven Fox, tell our listeners about The Clarion Choir.
Fox: The Clarion Choir is a professional chamber choir. All of our singers are freelance artists who make their living singing choral music, and I would say all of the singers in The Clarion Choir also are very gifted soloists. I try to find singers who have the ability and vocal uniqueness to sing a solo very beautifully, but who can also work well in an ensemble. We have anywhere from 15 to 30 singers in the choir, and many of them are folks I’ve been working with for more than 10 or 12 years. They’re wonderful people. I’m always amazed by how responsive they are to ideas. I’m amazed by the ideas that they bring to the process. It’s always such a pleasure performing and recording with them.
Rob: Who did you study with when you were at university?
Fox: When I was at Dartmouth College, I studied with William Summers, Louis Burkot, and Melinda O’Neal, all very fine conductors. Bill Summers was also a great musicologist, and they were all very supportive of my conducting Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. Actually, the Vespers was the first major work that I ever conducted, and I did it as part of my senior project at Dartmouth College. I had just returned from studying the language at St Petersburg State University and decided that I wanted to do two concerts of Russian music. I decided to do the Vespers and never looked back. One of the reasons that I became a conductor after college was the experience that I had working with this piece.
Rob: It certainly is inspiring. Steven, where do you get your singers?
Fox: I was singing quite often at St. Thomas Church Choir of Men and Boys, and their amazing director, John Scott, did a performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. He actually asked me to coach the language for that performance. He brought in this wonderful low bass named Glenn Miller. I couldn’t believe the sounds that I was hearing across the choir in the bass section. Glenn and I met at that concert and became very good friends. And every time I’ve done the All-Night Vigil since then, I have invited Glenn in to sing. There are a number of low basses in the United States who can sing down to the low B-flat. But for Glenn, it’s not just that he hits those notes, he resounds on them. It’s almost as though they are the center of his range. When Rachmaninoff first wrote the work, he showed it to one of his teachers, who said it was too low. So Rachmaninoff said, “I have faith in my countryman.” And at the premiere, he was vindicated when those low notes were sung resoundingly in the hall.
Rob: What was the story behind Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Magnificat Vigil? What were the performance challenges for the choir?
Fox: He wrote this piece for the Moscow Synodal Choir, a very famous choir that had a wonderful tradition of singing Russian Orthodox choral music based in Moscow. Sadly, a number of years after they premiered this, that choir dissolved, soon after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Rachmaninoff had written a setting of the main liturgy of the Orthodox Church about five years earlier and that was an experience that he described as extremely satisfying. I think it’s very clear from these two works, the Liturgy and the Vespers, that there was very clearly a sense of faith and spirituality that Rachmaninoff held very firmly. Having had the experience of setting the liturgy some years before, there was a new-found freedom that Rachmaninoff had in setting the All-Night Vigil. The music is freer. It definitely is more adventuresome, going through the keys, modulating all the time, going into unexpected keys, whereas the liturgy is steadier, beautiful harmonically, and meditative.
The Vespers is thrilling. It’s exciting. It requires acrobatics. It is a virtuosic piece to sing. It tests the limits of range. The phrases are long and require great breath control, and extremes of range. It’s also unaccompanied, so all of this needs to be done by the voices alone without an organ or an orchestra. There are no instruments allowed. It was one of the pieces that Rachmaninoff said he was most proud of. I can see why. There are 15 movements–it’s really an All-Night Vigil.
The piece is about 75 minutes. We perform it with some of the chants upon which Rachmaninoff based a number of the movements. When we perform the piece live, we insert about five of these chants so that you can hear the melody and then hear what Rachmaninoff did with the melody. And that’s the way we decided to record it as well. So I hope listeners enjoy hearing some of those melodies performed alone before we hear Rachmaninoff’s settings of them.
It was a goal of mine in this recording to show just how amazing each of those 15 parts are. I think that they can be appreciated individually as extraordinary pieces of music. Some of them are quite short, while others are more symphonic in scale, but each one has tremendous detail and richness to it. Rachmaninoff was very sensitive to the text each movement was based on when writing this piece. Each of those 15 movements are different and unique, which makes the Vespers so extraordinary.
Join us for Steven Fox’s full interview at 7 PM on Sunday, April 30th! Download our app, stream online on TheClassicalStation.org, or turn your radio to 89.7 FM.