Cappella Romana review: Musical time travel

Vocal ensemble's Passion performance transports listeners to millennium-old sacred service.

Cappella Romana, Portland’s premier choir, is on a roll. They’ve been stepping up their touring schedule with high-profile engagements around the country and abroad, gave the world premiere of Maximilian Steinberg’s 1923 Passion Week last season to a glowing Wall Street Journal review by Artswatch’s Brett Campbell, and added several recordings to an already substantial discography. Their 20th CD, Good Friday in Jerusalem, was released last week and vaulted to the top spot among vocal new releases (it’s currently sold out); it also debuted this week at no. 8 on Billboard’s classical chart. So you can imagine the CD release concerts the weekend before—cases of Krug, stretch limos, the usual.

Actually, they were exactly the kind of affair you’d expect from Cappella, with solemn processions and superb performances of melismatic chant cloaked in antiquity.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Many years ago, I wrote that Alexander Lingas, Cappella’s founder and artistic director, “has a gift that most classical concert promoters would kill for: an uncanny ability to assemble large and devoted audiences for programs that the vast majority of the concert-going public would find hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull. It is difficult to imagine anyone else turning the earliest chant into le dernier cri.” (I learned years later that—a highlight of my professional life—the phrase “hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull” was printed on a t-shirt worn by Lingas himself.) That was apropos a program of Roman chant; this program reached even further back into the past, with excerpts from a 10th-century Passion service including chant from the eighth century derived from earlier compositions.

On a strictly sonic level, the concert at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was magnificent (though I’d love to have heard the matinee performance in the spacious, ringing acoustic of St. Mary’s Cathedral as well). As with last year’s concerts of Finnish Orthodox music, it was especially satisfying to hear the singers perform music they’d already worked to a fine polish for committing to disc. The ten men filled the space with dark resonance, making effortless work of melismatic unison melodies and rock-solid drones, and the pacing was measured but unflagging.

Beyond just the sound, however, was the humbling realization that this was a telling of the Passion as it would likely have sounded over a millennium ago in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem complex built around the site of the crucifixion and entombment of Christ. There are limits to sound recreation, of course, but this configuration of Cappella had impeccable credentials as a kind of Byzantine supergroup of cantor-scholars including Lingas, his City University of London colleague Spyridon Antonopoulos, frequent Cappella collaborator and composer Ioannis Arvanitis, protopsaltis Stelios Kontakiotis (first chanter of one of Greece’s leading pilgrimage sites), and John Michael Boyer, protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco. (Listening to Boyer’s voice develop its regal presence over 15 years with Cappella has been one of the more gratifying benefits of following the ensemble.)

GoodFridayInJerusalem-300x300The concert also invited a listener to delve into the expressive potential of this ancient music, a kind of artistic expression that, because the rigors and self-negating ethos of the medieval church are worlds away from the nakedly personal poetry of, say, Schubert, we have little ability to grasp. But it was impossible not to hear the laments of Mary at the foot of the cross and not be moved.

My first experience of Cappella was a performance of another setting of the Passion, Arvo Pärt’s, over 20 years ago; the journey from that to this has been profound, through many layers of musical history. I am reminded of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, where an 18th-century coffered ceiling covers a medieval basilica, which itself sits atop a 4th-century church with a former Mithraic temple in its basement. Standing there, on what was originally a republican-era private house, you can hear a trickle of water from an ancient source. Good Friday in Jerusalem went deep, and it sounded close to the spring from which poured centuries of sacred music.

James McQuillen is the classical music writer for The Oregonian.

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