cappella romana

Cappella Romana and Portland State Chamber Choir: Contemporary psalms and passion.

 Two Portland choral powerhouses in two heavyweight works

by JEFF WINSLOW

Portland’s choral music fans got a serious double treat a week ago last Sunday afternoon. First, Cappella Romana took on Alfred Schnittke’s huge, demanding Verses of Repentance (often translated Penitential Psalms), composed for the thousand-year anniversary of the Christianization of Russia in 1988, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. A few hours later, the Portland State University Chamber Choir presented David Lang’s magnum opus The Little Match Girl Passion at St. Stephen Catholic Church across the Willamette. Both works challenged these top groups to give their absolute best; both performances did full justice to the composers’ visions.

Cappella Romana performed music of Alfred Schnittke.

Cappella Romana performed music of Alfred Schnittke.

As if this weren’t enough, both choirs filled out – maybe overfilled — their programs with several other works. Cappella Romana’s program went well over two hours, including a long intermission, and with great regret I had to leave before the second half in order to be on time for the PSU group. Thus I missed an early Sergei Rachmaninov Choral Concerto, and recently composed works by Galina Grigorjeva and renowned guest director Ivan Moody. I’m sure the singers had recovered sufficiently from Schnittke to give them beautiful performances, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for them. The drive across town helped bring me back to the world, temporarily.

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New Cappella Romana CD, Shakespeare 2016, and misadventures of the very rich

Cappella Romana's new album is released today plus OSF's new season

Dear ArtsWatchers, today Cappella Romana, the great Portland choral ensemble, is releasing a new CD, and maybe you’ll want to drive it to the top of the Billboard classical charts? Of course you will!

And yesterday, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its 2016 season, early birds that they are, which features five Shakespeare productions (its the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death) and some tasty world premieres, not to mention the The Wiz.

Finally, the owner of that Francis Bacon triptych that launched a million words and cost 142.2 million dollars? She’s very unhappy. But not about the paintings.

cappellaromanaCappella Romana’s new album, Maximilian Steinberg: Passion Week, now stands at #2 on the Amazon list of new opera and vocal releases, and today is its official release date. What makes it such a big deal? Here are a few key sentences from Benedict Sheehan’s Orthodox Arts Journal review:

“While the discovery of this long-lost major work of sacred choral music is a milestone in the history of the literature, in no lesser degree is Cappella Romana’s rendering of the piece a landmark contribution to the modern canon of choral recordings. In every respect, and I don’t use these words lightly, their new disc is a triumph. Using their characteristic radiantly bright and clear sound—a welcome relief from the proliferation of performances that seem to be stuck in the wrong-headed notion that Russian sacred music has to be dark, dramatic, and ponderous, with a superabundance of vocal “cover”—Alexander Lingas and the singers of Cappella Romana bring a highly refined musical sensibility to the Steinberg score.”

It goes on in that celebratory vein!

And you can celebrate, too! Cappella Romana and Artslandia are holding a Listening Party, 5-8 pm Tuesday, March 31, at the Artslandia offices, 2240 N. Interstate Ave., Suite 200, in Portland. The available space isn’t unbounded, so you’ll have to RSVP. Don’t let the Add to Cart instruction fool you: It’s free. And it includes beer courtesy of Lucky Lab Brewery and snacks. Which is a lot to include for free.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, recently embarked on its 2015 season, has announced its 2016 schedule, per ArtsWatch friend Amy Richard. These guys are organized!

The Shakespeares: Twelfth Night (February 19-October 30) and Timon of Athens (July 27-October 29) in the Bowmer Theatre; Richard II (July5-October 30) in the Thomas Theatre; and Hamlet (June 7-October 14) and The Winter’s Tale (June 9-October 16) in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

The Musicals: The Yeomen of the Guard (Feburary 24-October 30), a World Premiere adaption; The Wiz (June 8-October 15).

World Premieres: Lisa Loomer’s Roe, part of the the company’s American Revolutions cycle (April 20-October 29); Great Expectations, adapted by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper (February 20-October 30); Marisela Treviño Orta’s The River Bride (February 21-July 7).

And Vietgone (March 30-October 29), Qui Nguyen’s play about the Vietnam War from the perspective of her parents, who fled the country in 1975 for a refugee camp in Arkansas, which is receiving its first production later this year at South Coast Repertory Theatre.

Tickets for the 2016 season will go on sale in November 2015 for members, and general sales will begin in early December.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie’s Images Limited 2013

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie’s Images Limited 2013

Elaine P. Wynne, the casino magnate who bought the $142.2 million Francis Bacon triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” that was parked at the Portland Art Museum last year, is in a fight to retain a seat on her own board. Naturally, we wrote at length about that triptych and its discontents here at ArtsWatch in “Dealing with Francis Bacon and all that money.” The New York Times also estimates that lodging the art here might have saved her an $11 million Nevada tax bill. We were so glad to be of service.

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.

Cappella Romana review: A Falling Star Shines Bright

Portland vocal ensemble excels in hometown performance before major European festival appearance.

by BRUCE BROWNE

Just past what the Greeks called “dog days of summer,” Cappella Romana shone like Sirius in our Portland sky. Saturday night the premier choral ensemble presented a thoughtful, dramatic performance of Greek and Latin compositions written before and after the fall of Constantinople, the title of the concert.

The entire program was meant to transport us to the years prior to and just after the final downfall in 1453, the year of the final siege upon Roman Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. The Eastern Mediterranean’s political climate, heated for decades, was well documented by composers, some making clear their personal sympathies, such as Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474), a justifiably famous musician from the Netherlands school, and the Greek Renaissance scholar John Plousiadenos.

Cappella Romana performed in Seattle and Portland before taking their music to The Netherlands.

Cappella Romana performed in Seattle and Portland before taking their music to The Netherlands.

All ten voices in Cappella Romana were remarkable. Jon Boyer, Mark Powell (and conductor/artistic director Alexander Lingas) were first rate in lead roles as Priest or Deacon. Mel Downie Robinson and Catherine Van der Salm were pristine, mellow in their intermittent roles.

Two pieces stood out. While working for the Malatesta family, the peripatetic Dufay, who worked for several mid-15th century princes and courts around Europe, wrote “Vasilissa ergo gaude” (Empress, therefore rejoice), in celebration of a dynastic marital coupling in Rimini.

The other, “Lament for the Fall of Constantinople” (c. 1458) was composed by Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes, a 15th century singer and composer of the Constantinopolitan Courta and the most prominent Byzantine musician of the 15th century. My ear was struck here, and at other places, by the absolute clarity and confidence of the soloists in negotiating some very tricky passages. The mode (was it Lydian?) presented no problems for the singers, who clearly expressed the sighing and emoting reflective of the text.

Some of the features of Byzantine music echo what we know from Gregorian chant as it developed in the second millennium, with attenuated pedal tones (similar to “drones” as on a bagpipe) and parallel movement (where the pitch distance between two voices remains constant as the melody line continues) of perfect fifths and octaves the rule — for which today’s freshman theory student would receive a grade of “F.”

Among many things which separate this music from other, later choral music, say of Bach, Byrd, or Brahms, are the numerous ornaments that must be executed, spot on, in a quarter second. The exacting execution of these ornamental elements showed the scholarship and vocal tenacity of Lingas and the choir. Another twist in this music’s style is the disequilibrium produced by chromatic (deviation from scale tones) and micro-chromatic (quarter tones) nature of the melodies. These was either written in, or quite possibly products of Lingas’s educated guesses. When singing in unison and in octaves, it is a real challenge.

Ironically, this music sometimes asks the singers to do what all high school/college choristers are asked never to do. One stylistic element, for example, is the proclivity to attack the note from below at the beginnings of phrases. What is extraordinary about this practice is the virtuosity of ensemble scooping. Choral directors out there, think about it: scooping in unison. Egads.

“Canon in honor of Thomas Aquinas” by John Plousiadenos (1429? – 1500), consisted of several verses with seemingly more advanced melodic features parceled out variously to the men, then the ladies of the choir, offering similar modal inflections at most of the cadence points. “Ecclesiasticae Militatis” (The Church Militant), Dufay again, was a spirited, strong vehicle with two tenors, Leslie Green and Blake Applegate, leading the way, artfully and sinuously, the two vocal lines meshing like snakes making love. There was no avoiding the “diabolus in musica” (diminished fifth); the modes dictated this very often throughout the concert (as accidents of modal use, not to enhance the text). Another feature of this motet and others was the hopping back and forth from triple to duple meter, handled expertly by choir and director.

At the end of the program, appropriately, came the most impactful piece, perhaps both musically and historically: “Lamentatio Sanctae Matris Ecclasiae” (Lament to the Holy Mother of Constantinople). This multi-layered Dufay piece was a model of the early polytextual motet (French and Latin), and cantus firmi (a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition.) in a lower part, poised against one or two upper contrapuntal melodies. This was the precursor of the “modern” (again Bach, Byrd, Brahms et.al.) motet. But there is no bass part per se. So, to the 21st century ear, the upper parts sort of hang in the air, pining for the anchor of the bass.

Kudos to Cappella Romana, which last month received a $90,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation. And bravo to the Foundation for recognizing that Cappella Romana is a worthy ensemble led by one of the world’s leading scholars in Byzantine music, a Portland treasure, Dr. Alexander Lingas.

My pew-mate for the concert, a Portland visitor from a small town of 5,000, said hearing this music was like going back in time, being immersed in an era – a period- piece concert. The only thing missing, she said, was a stone cold church and a gentle snowfall. OK. I get that. Transported is good.

This week, the choir takes off for Holland to sing at the Festival of Early Music in Utrecht — signal honor for a singly good choir. Bon voyage.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and Portland State University’s renowned choral programs, and has conducted choirs around the world.

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The Ensemble.

The Ensemble.

by JEFF WINSLOW

April bowed out with a hot week in Puddletown, and it was a hot week for contemporary choral music too. The first weekend heard The Ensemble, Friday at First Christian Church downtown, singing music all from the last 25 years, followed by the spring concerts of Oregon Repertory Singers (at First United Methodist) and the Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland (at The Old Church), each in two shows that at least nodded in that direction. Cappella Romana kept things simmering with their concert the following Friday at St. Mary’s Cathedral, featuring Eugene composer Robert Kyr’s environmentally themed magnum opus A Time for Life. The next day, as they reprised it in Seattle, one of that town’s most adventurous groups, The Esoterics, returned the favor at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall with a program of mostly new music celebrating the forest world, “Sylvana.” The woods may be cool, dark and deep, but the heat was on to the finish.

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An international news and notes: Juicy, too

A night with Cedar Lake, Artists Rep's new season, Debra Beers, 'Tartuffe', Cappella Romana, Shakespeare's canon

Debra Beers, 'Cleo’s Farewell', 2013, at Lewis & Clark's Hoffman Gallery through March 9

Debra Beers, ‘Cleo’s Farewell’,
2013, at Lewis & Clark’s Hoffman Gallery through March 9

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet breezed into Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Wednesday night for a couple of hours and danced the living daylights out of three demanding and fascinating pieces.  Presumably, the company is winging its way to some new locale today where it will do the same.  If they were performing here tonight again, I’d change my plans and make sure I saw them, even if they were just repeating the same program, just to see the way the three contemporary choreographers employed those superbly trained bodies one more time. We have reached a new age of virtuosity on our dance stages, and choreographers who have grown up with it, know how to use to create effects and moods that weren’t possible before, in quite the same way.

I remember when Twyla Tharp pushed her dancers to the very limit in the ’70s, and I still love those dances and dancers. But this level of athleticism and technique, that’s another story completely. I won’t go into last night’s program at length, because, well, it’s gone. And if you saw it, you saw this apex dance company dancing the new international style brilliantly and compellingly. This isn’t the only way to dance, of course, but it’s what the major touring companies are doing, and though I may have some reservations still, I have to say I was delighted and moved by last night’s show, which included Hofesh Shechter Violet Kid, Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet, and Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine.

But we have so much more on the docket today!

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Portland choir Cappella Romana sang Finnish Orthodox music at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Portland choir Cappella Romana sang Finnish Orthodox music at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

 by JEFF WINSLOW

For some reason the Christmas pageants at my Salem grade school always began with Jean Sibelius’ patriotic Finlandia-hymn, but fitted with words which instead described a sad state of affairs – undone work and crumbling walls – which the birth of Jesus promised to remedy. As a child I found this almost unbearably poignant, and preferred the music to nearly all the Christmas carols which followed. So Cappella Romana, in opening their concert with it last Friday evening at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, established an instant rapport just as if I were one of Sibelius’ fellow Finns. The work has been criticized as hard to sing, mainly by those who don’t want it to become Finland’s national anthem, but the group didn’t give the slightest evidence of it.

The rest of the concert celebrated January’s gradual return of light to Portland skies with Orthodox church music mostly from Finland, a land whose extremes of lighting, both day and night, put Oregon’s to shame. Between direction by renowned visiting Finnish conductor Timo Nuoranne, informative program notes by British composer Ivan Moody (who also selected the works), and the usual cadre of top-flight local singers, a packed house was transported irresistibly to the promised land of Arctic Light. Founder Alexander Lingas can be proud.

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