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Carmel Institute Sends Students “To the Wild Sky"

Rachmaninov, Tennyson, & Poe at the National Cathedral

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The Carmel Institute gave tickets to American University students to attend the innovative “To the Wild Sky” concert at the National Cathedral on March 19, 2023. The Cathedral Choral Society and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with Steven Fox conducting, featured Sergei Rachmaninov compositions inspired by other art forms, bookending a more modern piece from Augusta Read Thomas using texts drawn from Alfred Lord Tennyson. The concert featured the vocal talents of Andriana Chuchman, soprano; John Ramseyer, tenor; and Aleksey Bogdanov, baritone.

The concert began with a Carillon Prelude compiled from a variety of works by Edward M. Nassor to set the mood as the guests came in and found their seats. Then the orchestra dove into Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead, op. 29, completed in 1909 after the composer saw a black and white version of Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name. Rachmaninov’s friend (and manager of the Russische Musikverlag in Dresden) Nikolai Struve suggested that he compose a musical version of the painting and Rachmaninov dedicated the composition to Struve “as a sign of friendship.”

Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Struve photo

The Isle of the Dead took the audience on a boat voyage, with the first movement suggesting the rhythm of oars slapping the water within a sad, funereal melody. The second and third movements built from a quiet urgency as the boat reached the island to a joyful climax and catharsis, before subsiding into an acceptance of loss and grief as the sound of oars returns in the conclusion. The work created a clear link to the original visual medium of the painting, demonstrating the deep interconnectedness not only of different art forms, but the need of human beings for the arts in all their forms.

The concert then moved on to Augusta Read Thomas’ Ring Out, Wild Bells, to the Wild Sky, a composition with lyrics from Alfred Lord Tennyson performed masterfully by the Cathedral Choral Society and soprano soloist Andrianna Chuchman. The work was originally commissioned by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, D.C. in 2000.

Rachmaninov composing at a piano, 1910

The last half of the evening centered on Edgar Allen Poe’s onomatopoeic poem “The Bells,” with an interpretive performance in English. Then the orchestra and choral society launched into Rachmaninov’s The Bells, op. 35 from 1913. Rachmaninov’s work incorporated the poem translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont. The music perfectly follows the poem’s changes of mood from stanza to stanza, from happy silver twinkles to wedding bells ringing out in joy to jarring alarm bells and their portent of danger and despair to the moaning and the groaning of mournful funeral bells.

References and further information:
LA Philharmonic, Isle of the Dead, Sergei Rachmaninoff

On Struve and Rachmaninov, see Sergei Bertensson & Jay Leyda. Sergei Rachmaninoff – A Lifetime in Music (Paperback ed.). New York: New York University Press, 2001, 154-5.

An interpretive reading of “The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe in English.