Cappella Romana preview: Byzantium & beyond

Portland vocal ensemble's 25th anniversary concert reprises its first performance, which set the blueprint for its mix of medieval to modern music

When Alexander Lingas moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1990, the Greek Orthodox cathedral where he’d just been appointed associate cantor lay in ruins, devastated by the 1989 Loma Prieto earthquake. Lingas wanted to help the church rebuild – and the only contribution he could offer was music. The Portland native had sung in his Greek Orthodox church, with local choir Cantores in Ecclesia and with the Portland State Chamber choir, and even formed an early music ensemble of his own while studying at PSU. So he and his Portland musical friends piled into a van, and headed south to perform a benefit concert. The church offered them lodging and a lavish, post-concert spaghetti dinner with freshly cured Greek olives.

Cappella Romana in 1994.

Cappella Romana in 1994.

After hearing the Northwesterners sing Greek Orthodox music from ancient Byzantium as well as contemporary Greek-American composers and more, nearly 300 listeners donated money for cathedral reconstruction. And Lingas and friends decided to keep making music.

To evoke the Byzantine empire’s Roman heritage and the medieval Greek concept of a religious world that embraced the far-flung lands of the old Roman Empire, he named the group Cappella Romana — Roman chapel. This weekend, the ensemble performs the same program in Seattle and Portland.

Maybe they should have called it Roam-ana. Since that first concert, the Portland based vocal ensemble, which also includes members who live elsewhere, performs annual concert series in its hometown and Seattle. Its tours have brought the group’s sometimes ethereal, sometimes austere, always powerfully moving music to venues such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Getty Center, the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford and Yale universities, festivals in London, Ireland, Sicily, Europe’s most prestigious early music festivals and even in its music’s ancestral homelands, Greece and Rome.

“We performed outside the cave of St John of the Apocalypse at Patmos,” Lingas recalled of one especially memorable trip. “Then, the ferry taking us to Mykonos broke down, and the original venue where we were supposed to perform fell through. But we had a contact on the island where we recorded our Live in Greece album. His church turned out to be a perfect place for our last performance.”

Cappella Romana performed in Greece.

Cappella Romana performed in Greece.

But Cappella Romana has always been about more than just its core Greek niche. That first concert, which the group will reprise in its 25th anniversary concert on September 24, also established its eagerness to look beyond its core traditional Byzantine chant repertoire, from medieval to modern and much in between. The concert includes music by Stravinsky, excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s “All Night Vigil” (one of many Russian Orthodox works the ensemble has performed), popular late 20th century British Orthodox composer John Tavener, and Greek American composers Tikey Zes, Frank Desby and Lingas himself.

Cappella Romana earned international recognition for reviving and recording the long-lost early 20th century Russian Orthodox Passion Week by Russian composer Maximilian Steinberg. It also often sings Baroque music, such as Handel’s Messiah, with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Its lineup changes depending on the music it sings. The group has released more than 20 recordings.

“Lingas’s spark of the idea to build a group around the very idea of the Greek, Byzantine, and other flavors of choral music, including contemporary composers, has gifted Portland, and the nation with a rare consciousness of some things many of us never knew: what was sung, and as important, how it was sung, in the rarified atmosphere of medieval and pre-medieval cultures,” says Portland choral music champion Bruce Browne, who directed the PSU choral program when Lingas studied there.

Contemporary Relevance

Cappella Romana has also made significant contributions to musical scholarship via Lingas’s work in unearthing ancient manuscripts and making them performable by modern musicians. But Lingas, who lives in London where he teaches and researches at a university, insists that Cappella’s music is relevant to a broad range of listeners, not just scholars.

“Ancient traditions of music have a contemporary resonance somehow,” he explains. “It’s this fantastically intricate and sophisticated world. People know this from the visual art of the time they might see in a museum, but there is a sound world associated with it that we bring to a wider audience.”

Conductor Alexander Lingas, composer Robert Kyr and Cappella Romana bask in the applause.

Conductor Alexander Lingas, composer Robert Kyr and Cappella Romana bask in the applause after the group performed his environmental oratorio, ‘A Time for Life.’

He also points to the group’s performances and recordings of contemporary music by Oregon’s own Robert Kyr, Ivan Moody, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (whose music the group performs in January), the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whom the group will celebrate in a February festival, and more.

“Composers like Part and Tavener and others are recognized by modern audiences as having ties to ancient traditions but people have found in their music a kind of a window into a wider spiritual world,” Lingas says.

Looking forward

Lingas is gratified to see Cappella professionalizing, having recently brought aboard two full time employees including singer and executive director Mark Powell, who had previously split time with Portland Baroque Orchestra. “I’d like to find a way of solidifying and securing the underlying infrastructure of Cappella to provide a firmer basis for the scholarly work we do which underlies the music,” Lingas says, such as increasing collaborations with partner organizations around the world and publishing the scores the ensemble performs.

Cappella Romana performs at Portland's Trinity Cathedral Saturday.

Cappella Romana performs at Portland’s Trinity Cathedral Saturday.

And he looks forward to continuing the group’s deepening of its musical explorations. At this month’s second appearance at Utrecht’s early music festival, for instance, the group sang music from Greek colonies in 16th century Venice and St Petersburg that sat unperformed for four centuries.

“One of the joys of what we do is that the traditions we’re exploring are so rich that there’s an inexhaustible supply,” and much more remains “in the hopper, or on the shelf already that we’re waiting for the right opportunity to perform,” he says. “There’s lots to do. We’ll continue exploring all these things we’ve found and sharing them with people.”

Cappella Romana reprises its first 1991 concert, Orthodox Music: Ancient & Modern, at 4:00 p.m. September 24, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Ave, Portland. A separately ticketed 25th anniversary gala, “A Night on the Aegean,” follows. Tickets online at www.CappellaRomana.org or call 503.236.8202. A shorter version of this story appears on O Live and in The Oregonian.

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