Cappella Romana: Straddling Worlds

The superb vocal ensemble's "Christmas in Ukraine" was ancient and modern and a breath of life. Next up: The Lost Treasures of Armenia.

Story and photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER

Cappella Romana opened its 2018/19 season announcement with the words, “Prepare to be engaged, moved, and inspired.” Consider it done. You could add an occasional “made breathless” by the sheer beauty of the singing. One of the main themes of the glorious vocal ensemble’s Saturday concert Christmas in Ukraine at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Portland was the notion of breath. Breath as the source of life handed down from above, and breath as the source of praise sent back up.

Cappela Romana, in full voice.

Presence and absence of breath was just one of the many dichotomies that came up at St. Mary’s (the program had played the night before in Seattle, and repeats in San Francisco on Jan. 5) while listening to and thinking about this chorus, its guest conductor Marika Kuzma, the music on offer, and the thoughts evoked by any mention of Ukraine these days.

Take the voice of each of the singers, surely a gift, but what would it be without the care, the tending, the hard work put in to maintain and develop that instrument? Nature meets nurture right then and there. (And speaking of gifts: I was allowed to photograph during one of the few rehearsal sessions, a personified nuisance waving an annoying camera in the face of anyone looking up from yet another hard-to-pronounce Ukrainian idiom; the singers’ graciousness is appreciated and the intense concentration of one and all documented here.)

Singers Erik Hundtoft and David Stutz in rehearsal.

Vakarė Petroliūnaite.

Or take another contrast: For a choir whose stated mission was to introduce us to the traditional music of the Christian East and West, it’s surely come up with a wildly innovative and risk-taking repertoire across the years. Chant and song of the oikoumene of old are combined with contemporary pieces, often premieres, requiring significant flexibility with regard to musical demands and styles.

The problem of the Tower of Babel, the inability to comprehend different languages, would have been single-handedly solved by this group: Its command of multiple languages, from different linguistic roots and across widely disparate historical times, is remarkable. Whether touring here and abroad, partaking in scientific experiments at Stanford to recreate site-specific historic sound (Icon of Sound), reminding us of the sacrifice forced by war (They are at Rest: A Remembrance of the 1918 Armistice) or forever returning to the Slavic sacral music that seems so deeply rooted in their souls: They straddle worlds.

Executive Director Mark Powell.

Cappella Romana’s executive director, Mark Powell, on the other hand, is straddling roles. He is bringing brain power, focus and energy to the recently introduced planned giving program In Perpetuity. Taking this and many other steps to secure the future of the organization, however, does not prevent him from also being an excellent doorman when locked rehearsal doors require it; a perceptive documentarian when the work needs to be evaluated; an engaged administrator who deeply cares for the organization both as an artist and in his current capacity while schlepping chairs to seat the choir. And he shares program development with others, which brings me back to Saturday’s concert.

Guest director Marika Kuzma is professor emeritus of music at UC Berkeley and a gifted choral director who has worked with some of the best conductors in the world and brought renown to the UC symphonic Chorus as well as chamber ensembles. Born to Ukrainian parents, first generation in this country, Kuzma literally embodies two worlds. Raised within the tradition, language and customs of one, she rose to prominence in the other, combining numerous, sometimes conflicting, roles of scholar, teacher, conductor, and performer in her career in music and acting. Her skill as a musicologist and her linguistic ability to explore original sources for her studies of Ukrainian composer Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) eventually led to a highly praised recording of some of his work, sung by Ensemble CherubimI cried out the Lord, and recent publication of a critical edition of Bortniansky’s choral concertos.

Guest conductor Marika Kuzma in rehearsal.

The way to achievement was paved with challenges. No male conductor, in a profession still dominated by men, has likely had to listen to advice by his mentors to “cut your hair short, never, ever smile, and lower your voice as much as you can to be taken seriously!” Kuzma calls it the martinette approach and promptly rejected it.

Even “a culturally adventurous choir with such superb singers, open to diverse programming as Cappella Romana” (Kuzma’s words) needs to adjust to each new guest conductor. Language coaching required a month of long-distance Face Timing with the soloists (although greatly helped by another choir member of Ukrainian descent, Nadia Tarnawsky.) Rehearsal time in real life is short, and sometimes the acoustics of the performance space cannot be sufficiently explored before each concert. In addition, the choir this year had to adjust to multiple new faces, approaches and demands by consecutive guest conductors. As thrilling as learning new things can be, or tackling challenges that produce real artistic growth, it must also be – I wager – exhausting.

Les Green.

Nadia Tarnawsky.

Brenna Wells (foreground) and Vakarė Petroliūnaite.

Daniel Burnett.

You wouldn’t know that, though, by the standards of Saturday’s sold-out performance. Call me engaged! It was as exuberant as one would wish when the music demanded it. It was as solemn as one would hope when the message was grave, with precise, energetic, and fluid conducting throughout. And this is not where the dichotomies end.

Kuzma devised a terrific program that included music from both pagan and sacral realms, as they both capture a typical repertoire for the Ukrainian nation of devoted (and devout) singers, carols and motets. Many of the pieces had never been published before in the United States and were transcribed by the director or provided by her colleagues in Kiev. The theme of nature as a source of inspiration and adulation at the birth of Christ ran through the concert.

Added to that were occasional spoken passages, reading of prose-poetry by the singers, and childhood reminiscences by the conductor, as is Ukrainian custom. On the one hand it provided an introduction to the culture, helped us understand the value of recitation to a nation exposed to ever-changing circumstances, preserving heritage. I learned from Kuzma that her grandfather, working in the Carpathian mountains, had faced severe punishment and death threats for the plain act of distributing leaflets encouraging the upkeep of the Ukrainian language. On the other hand, I was so greedy for more of the exquisite singing that I found myself waiting impatiently for the music to return.

Erik Hundtoft and Jessica Israels.

Kerry McCarthy.

Daniel Picken-Jones.

A measure of verisimilitude was added to the caroling, when parts of the choir walked the length of the nave, or grouping among the singers changed throughout the Christmas carols, koliadki, or the Epiphany songs, shchedrivki. They delivered a rustic, folksy feel, although I would not go as far as to describe these songs, as a recent reviewer did, as “traditional Ukrainian House-Party.”

Harmonic simplicity and bell-like acoustic color tempted not a few listeners to chime in with soft humming on occasion. No match to the full-bodied voices and clear articulation by the choir, I hasten to add. Not a huge disturbance either, though, because it captured the communal spirit inherent to these a cappella pieces.

And talking about bell-like: the chorus managed to breathe new life even into an old chestnut, Scedrik, known to us as Carol of the Bells, which is really not about bells at all, or even a Christmas carol, but a song about swallows returning and bringing good tidings for Epiphany. The most impressive bell incantation came in Yerusalimsky dzvoni, where a full range of octaves pealed and boomed across the hall in tempi that made you want to dance. That rousing carol was paired, in one of the most heartrending contrasts of the evening, with a wistful lullaby, Spi, Isuse, Spi. Call me moved!

Maria Karlin.

Chris Engbretson.

Charlotte Engler.

And then there was Bortniansky. During my childhood in Germany I only knew him as the composer whose piece Pray to the Power of Love was chosen by Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm III to be played by German military bands as their Grand Tattoo, which they do to this day, I believe. On Saturday I listened to one of his concertos that is part of a compendium of 35 choral (or sacred) concertos. Cast in ripieno style, No. 6 Slava vo vsihni Bohu delivers praise but is also a call for peace, for which I was grateful.

Ukraine has seen too little of it. Again in the news after the latest tensions with Russia, it is going through a historic break-up of the Orthodox church into a national entity apart from its linkage to Russia. The memory of 4 million civilian lives extinguished through Hitler’s occupation and dreams of annexation in the 1940s, is alive in Ukrainians today. The memories of the Holodomor, which killed up to 10 million Ukrainians by starvation, induced by Stalin’s policies and focus on Soviet industrialization in the 1930s, are vivid.

Closer to our own times, we have the horrors of the nuclear reactors of Chernobyl imploding in 1986. And then came 2014, with its Euromaidan revolution and subsequent Russian intervention, annexation of the Crimea, and a country divided into factions that some believe are close to civil war. Five million people have been forced to flee their homes in Eastern Ukraine. The conflict has now claimed more than 10,000 lives, and injured many more.

Many are worried about a dire, irreversible ecological catastrophe due to flooded mines and contaminated drinking water because of the skirmishes in Eastern Ukraine, which would leave millions of people without safe drinking water. No memories here: The absence of peace is a contemporary scourge.

Benjamin Espana and Cecily Kiester.

Tim Galloway.

Photini Downie Robinson.

Music could not escape the influence of politics, either. During the Soviet era, the millennium-old traditional focus on religious themes and forms was disrupted, often prohibited, and manuscripts were destroyed. Words in carols or choral works, Bortniansky’s among them, were changed: Rather than welcoming the birth of Christ, a welcome to the New Year was now pronounced instead.

As an unintended but happy consequence, Ukrainian music culture saw a resurgence of compositions in the 1950s and ’60s that embrace the spontaneous energy of older, pagan chants and their focus on nature. Pre-Christian folk music was adopted into the works of contemporary composer Valentin Silvestrov, Miroslav Skorik, Êvgen Stankovič and most notably Lesâ Dičko. She was represented on Saturday with an excerpt from Zima, painting natural elements, the moon and the stars, beautifully closing the arc to the concert’s opening piece around nature’s breath.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine went through an act of reactance: a complete resurgence of religious music. Sacral allusions, biblical content and religious symbols were evident whereever you listened. From church to concert hall, Eurovision to pop music, liturgical and paraliturgical music ascended. Kuzma related an encounter at a music conference in Kiev in 1997 where eager young participants demanded to know if saxophones would be allowed for use in sacral music. The answer was: Not so much.

And yet, ingenious compromises are possible. My favorite piece of the evening was Yuriy Alzhniev’s Epiphany carol, Scedrivka. That wish for and praise of a holy night pulled on both heart and mind in its modern harmonics and levels of difficulty. Modernity and tradition, for form and content, stood no longer in contrast but formed a union. Call me inspired!

Which, by the way, I was as well by the soulful bandura playing of Nadia Tarnawsky, whose recent year spent as a Fulbright scholar in Ukraine benefits us all.

May peace prevail during holy and all other nights, wherever, whatever or whoever the source.

And now I go and catch my breath. See you at The Lost Treasures of Armenia concert on January 19!

Nadia Tarnawsky with the Bandura.

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One Response.

  1. John Lenti says:

    A wonderful review of a concert I couldn’t attend by a group I love featuring many musicians whom I cherish! It’s poignant to read such a thing. Just one tiny issue: I dearly hope that none of the music was truly from the “sacral” realms.

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