As Alexander Lingas beheld the shattered remains of San Francisco’s Annunciation Cathedral, devastated in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake a few months earlier, he wanted to help. The singer had moved to the city in June 1990 with his new wife, Ann, a violinist who was studying at the Conservatory of Music. The couple joined the city’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, where Lingas, then a musicology graduate student at the University of British Columbia, became lampadarios, or assistant cantor.
Lingas had arrived at a troubled time: the Annunciation Cathedral lay in ruins, and the church actually held services in the Bausch & Lomb building. The city’s orthodox community was beginning to figure out how to rebuild. For an impoverished graduate student, financial assistance was out of the question. The one thing Lingas could offer was music.
From that seed, planted in the aftermath of disaster, arose a project that would not only raise a fallen cathedral, but also help revive the faded music of a fallen empire. After rebuilding the collapsed church, Lingas would construct a career for himself, and a new edifice of ancient and modern sounds steeped in music and culture of the Roman Byzantine empire.
Before taking up his graduate studies in Vancouver in 1988, Lingas, a Portland native, had formed an early music vocal ensemble during his undergraduate years at Portland State University. (He also sang with the university chamber choir and the splendid Cantores in Ecclesia chorus.) The group had sung music of Monteverdi, Schutz and other Baroque composers. Lingas had also been singing Greek and Byzantine music during church services. He knew how to put together a concert program, and he’d stayed in touch with his fellow singers in the Portland and Vancouver early music circles. In early 1991, he resolved to bring them down to his new home for a concert to benefit the cathedral rebuilding project.
Lingas put together a list of pieces he’d seldom or never heard live. “It was very much a young man’s concert,” Lingas recalls, “with everything but the kitchen sink” — early Byzantine chant, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, all the way down to contemporary Orthodox composers including England’s John Tavener and San Francisco’s Tikey Zes. After a first performance at a Portland church, the singers piled into a van and headed south. The Greek diocesan house offered the young musicians a place to stay, along with a lavish, post-concert spaghetti dinner with freshly cured Greek olives. Nearly 300 listeners came and donated to the cathedral.
The group needed a name, and to evoke the Byzantine empire’s Roman heritage and the medieval Greek concept of a religious world that embraced Rome and Western Europe as well as the Slavic regions and other lands of the old empire, he called it Cappella Romana — Roman chapel.
This weekend, the group celebrates its 20th anniversary with concerts in Seattle, Portland, and Lincoln City featuring the medieval Byzantine chant it’s helped revive, and new music by composers who’ve written original music for the ensemble over the years. In the two decades since its founding concerts, the professional vocal ensemble has gone on to become the premier exponent and explorer of the musical traditions of Byzantium and other early Christian music, and Lingas one of its leading scholars. He and other researchers have found and revived long-dormant repertoire, which the group sings in its original Byzantine and Slavic languages.
For the past 20 years, Cappella Romana has performed music of contemporary European and North American composers who draw on those traditions, such as Arvo Part, Ivan Moody, Michael Adamis, several North American premieres of Tavener’s works, and more. The choir has also explored one of Lingas’s specialities: polyphonic and harmonized Greek American music brought by Orthodox immigrants over the last century or so and adapted to North American environments, including a West Coast school of contemporary composition in that tradition.
Although it’s based in Portland and performs several concerts each year here and in Seattle, the group draws singers from around the country and has performed in Europe, Los Angeles, New York City, Canada, and many other cities, appearing on National Public Radio, in various early music festivals and even at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, earning glowing reviews wherever it sings and securing its reputations as one of the Northwest’s most accomplished musical institutions.
After returning to Portland for a few years, Lingas now lives near London, where he’s is a senior lecturer in music at City University and a fellow of the University of Oxford’s European Humanities Research Centre, cranking out scholarly articles and books. Cappella Romana has recorded a dozen CDs, with several more in the works.
In September, the ensemble toured Greece with performances at the Sacred Music Festival of Patmos, before the Cave of the Apocalypse, and on the island of Paros with performances at the 6th-century Church of 100 Doors and the village church of Aspro Chorio, where the ensemble made a new live recording that will be available for the first time at this weekend’s concerts (with official national release in August). The program from the tour to Greece will be performed Memorial Day weekend on the DaCamera Society’s series in Los Angeles “Chamber Music in Historic Places,” which featured Stile Antico and the Kronos Quartet this year.
Earlier this season, Cappella gave an ambitious performance of a historically informed setting of the greatest work in the Russian Orthodox choral tradition, Rachmaninoff’s powerful All Night Vigil, augmented by related music from older composers. This spring, Cappella returned to the East Coast for several performances, which earned praise from National Public Radio and others. And next year, it should release its recording of University of Oregon professor and CR board president Robert Kyr’s ambitious 2009 environmental oratorio, A Time for Life.
To celebrate the ensemble’s two decades, Kyr suggested that he and other composers the group has worked with over the years —Peter Michaelides, Richard Toensing, Tikey Zes, John Vergin, Ivan Moody– compose new settings of odes from the Paschal Canon by St. John of Damascus, an 8th century Easter hymn which the group will sing this weekend along with medieval Byzantine chant and the six new settings.
“We are thrilled to be able to bring to our audiences world premieres by composers and scholars with whom we have had significant collaborations in the past,” says Mark Powell, executive director. “But more than that, the music itself is compelling, and I dare say the performances are bound to move the audience emotionally and spiritually as well as intellectually.”
In contrast to other classical music groups that seem content to live in a musty museum of repeated performances of the same old same old, Cappella Romana both revives neglected, unfamiliar repertoire and invests in the creation of contemporary music that ensures that its Byzantine legacy will evolve and flourish in this millennium. In this way, Cappella Romana has continued the reconstruction project that inspired its birth: rediscovering, restoring, and revivifying this rich musical heritage, and sustaining it as a living tradition.
An earlier version of this story appeared in San Francisco Classical Voice. Cappella Romana performs in Lincoln City, Portland and Seattle May 17-19. Tickets and information are available here.