Across the world, hordes of audience members are packing into unusual venues to hear classical music surrounded by the glow of candlelight. These concerts are the latest invention in the trend towards immersive artistic experiences, produced by the same commercial company responsible for the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit that came to Rochester last year. According to the art consultant group WolfBrown, the presenter Fever is edging out traditional presenters as one of the major concert producers worldwide, with concerts from Albany to Australia.
The classical music industry may be scratching its head at the success of a company that prioritizes experiences over repertoire or artists, but its candlelight concerts are not as singular as is hyped. Rochester, for instance, has presented immersive candlelight concerts for two decades.
On the first Sunday of every month, Christ Church, in collaboration with the Eastman School of Music, opens its doors and lights up its candles to present short concerts by candlelight. The concerts are followed by a historical Office of Compline church service with medieval chant. The candlelight concerts feature Eastman’s students and faculty, as well as other Rochester-area performers, and draws in audiences of all ages.
On Sunday, March 5 at 8:30 p.m., David Ying, cellist of the renowned Ying Quartet, performs along with pianist Elinor Freer. Cellist Steven Doane performs next month. Compline is at 9 p.m. each Sunday.
“It’s one of the special things about living in Rochester,” says Ying about the candlelight concerts and Compline. “It’s something that you just don’t experience too many places.”
The concerts began in 1997 as a way for Christ Church’s music director and Eastman professor Stephen Kennedy to get friends together on Sunday evenings to sing early music. “We could just gather together in the nabe of that spooky old church with great acoustics and chant some old chants,” he said. The friends thought it was beautiful enough that they should open the doors––and people started sauntering in to hear the music.
The singing group turned into Schola Cantorum, now a major ensemble at Eastman, and Kennedy formalized their Sunday evening performances into a Compline service, an evening prayer service that originated in early Roman Catholic churches. Because of restrictions across media outlets for publicizing religious concerts, he added a preceding secular candlelight concert once a month to take advantage of both the atmosphere and the press.
And, Kennedy says, “the room was so beautiful acoustically that all the music sounded far better than any concert hall.”
For the candlelight concerts, the church’s lights are turned off except for one ceiling spotlight and about 25-30 candles surrounding the performers, who play at the church chancel, the raised platform at the front of the church. The sound reverberation is about three-seconds, far longer than a traditional American concert hall. Although the candles are now all battery-operated—for logistics and safety—Kennedy hand-painted each artificial flame yellow and orange to maximize emitted warmth.
“Why be in a beautiful old room and turn the lights on,” says Kennedy. “Why not make it as authentic as possible so when people walk in that door, they step back in time? Candles are this timeless connection—architecturally, visually—it just illuminates everything from the building to your spirit.”
“You don’t even see the ceiling,” says Ying. “It’s just up there somewhere and you’re sort of aware of the people around you but also not. It allows you to be transported by music.”
There are no paper programs to distract. The historical church and glowing candles take listeners out of the formalities of a traditional concert and create a magical atmosphere that substantially changes the experience of listening to music. It becomes immersive.
The repertoire helps to set the mood, says Ying, who has played several candlelight concerts over the years. Sunday’s concert will open with a few short Scarlatti sonatas, performed by pianist Freer. Then, Freer and Ying will together perform a true spiritual written by Florence Price, originally for organ but arranged for cello and piano. Few pieces, however, could set the mood better than Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written by Messiaen while imprisoned in a concentration camp. The slow movement “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” was written only for cello and piano.
“This movement is very, very, very slow to the point that it starts to sound timeless and you lose track of time, as you might want to lose track of time if you were in a concentration camp. Music there is literally meant to lift you past your earthly circumstances,” says Ying. “What better place to play that than Christ Church where you can’t see the ceiling and you can truly be transported up somewhere else, beyond the troubles of earthly existence.”
Ying attributes the popularity of immersive candlelight concerts to the pandemic, where musicians and audiences could only gather virtually to play and listen to music. “As miraculous as that has been to help us stay connected and have music be a part of our lives, it is nothing like experiencing the real vibrations of air around you, with other people’s ears listening to the same thing that your ears are listening to. It’s not even remotely the same.”
Christ Church is located at 141 East Ave, Rochester, NY 14604
-Written by Senior Writer and Editorial Manager Anna Reguero