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Bach, Bend and the Byzantine

Cappella Romana connects the music of Byzantium and England in their January concert “A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court,” and sings the “B minor Mass” in Salem with conductor Paul Klemme in February. A cappella music comes to a festival in Bend and a competition in Sherwood.

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The meeting of Manuel II Palaiologos Emperor of the Romans and King Henry IV of England. Saint Alban’s Chronicle, MS6, Lambeth Palace Library, f240 recto. From the cover of Cappella Romana's new album "A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court: Christmas 1400, London."
The meeting of Manuel II Palaiologos Emperor of the Romans and King Henry IV of England. Saint Alban’s Chronicle, MS6, Lambeth Palace Library, f240 recto. From the cover of Cappella Romana’s new album “A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court: Christmas 1400, London.

How quickly we have access to the “new” these days. A choral piece, for example, can be published this year, receive a performance anywhere in the world that can be heard anywhere else in the world and be premiered regionally 10 times over. 

Contrast that to the world of J. S. Bach–he composed over a thousand pieces, many of which were given one performance and weren’t heard outside of Leipzig until a century later. Consider the extreme forces that would have to come into play for someone in 1400 England to get a chance to hear music of the Byzantine Empire.

Oh, we do love a premiere these days. Something new. But every piece of music can potentially be premiered a thousand times over to those who have never heard it before. And every live performance makes every composition new, even if you’ve heard it several times before–because the conductor, performer or venue is new. 

Had enough New Year’s philosophizing? Here are some choral happenings coming up that offer you the opportunity to hear the new and the old made new. Lots of firsts, coming at you, right now.

Celebrating first Mass

Dr. Paul Klemme, Director of Music Ministries at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem, considers the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) of Johann Sebastian Bach to be one of the most important compositions of western civilization. Some of you who know the work are nodding your heads in agreement. If you don’t know the work, on Feb. 5 in Salem you have an opportunity to hear for yourself why Klemme, in accord with many others, considers it such a masterpiece. 

There are so many things to say about the two-hour (ish) work.The subtle but persistent pounding in the “Crucifixus,” the “Agnus Dei” for alto and oboe d’amore, the “Quoniam” for bass and horn. And the way the first four notes of the final “Dona Nobis Pacem” seem to rise from the depths of your soul. 

But first you should know that to attend the performance you should do this right away: request your name(s) be added to the attendee list by going to this website. You don’t need to pay to request a seat, and the suggested “honor system” donation upon concert entry is $25. There will likely be no “day-of” seats! 

Klemme has engaged some of the area’s finest instrumental and vocal musicians for your pleasure. You might recognize some Portland Baroque Orchestra members. Concertmaster is Manami Mizumoto. The soprano and alto soloists are Arwen Myers and Laura Beckel Thoreson; this singing duo will rock the “Christe eleison.” Tenor Dann Coakwell and bass Charles Robert Stephens fill out the soloist quartet. This work requires a high level of musicianship and stamina for all but particularly for the choristers. Those singers, that choir: Cappella Romana of Portland. Whole thing sounds quite yummy, doesn’t it? Here’s that delicious “Christe eleison” duet mentioned above:

By the late 1740s, Bach was in his mid fifties and his health was in decline. He made some final revisions to his St. Matthew and St. John Passions, fiddled a little more with the Art of the Fugue, and finished his first full-scale setting of the Mass. More than a decade earlier, in 1733, he had worked out the first two sections of the Mass and included them in his application for the title of court musician in Dresden. He didn’t get the job (yeah, go figure). It took until 1736 for him to receive the distinguished title.

A significant portion of the Mass is parodied from his vast catalog of earlier motets, suites, cantatas, etc.–though some movements are brand new. Bach blends emerging musical styles with direct references to the past, copying Renaissance mannerisms from the monumental Pope Marcellus Mass (1561) of Vatican composer Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina. It all came together around 1749 but Bach would die the following year, never to hear it performed. Amazingly, the first documented performance of the full Mass was not until 109 years later, in Leipzig. 

And here it is in Salem, Oregon, about to be a first for someone. Even a singer, like Jason Sabino, who joins Cappella Romana for this performance. Sabino is choral teacher at Century High School in Hillsboro and the Artistic Director of the Oregon Chorale in Hillsboro. He’s no stranger to the major choral works, as evidenced in OC’s upcoming spring programming. But the words “it’s my first B Minor!” gushed from him in a recent conversation. He’s sung Bach motets, and studied the Mass, but never performed it. “This is what it means to be a lifelong learner in a lifelong career in music,” Sabino said.

Conductor Klemme, who is also Artistic Director of the Willamette Master Chorus and organ Artist Associate at Willamette University, recalls the very first time he heard the B Minor live: “I remember vividly my first time hearing the piece in Seattle with Joan Conlon directing the Northwest Chamber Chorus. I was mesmerized.” Klemme has studied the work for decades, and sang it eight times with Helmut Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival–not a bad model, that. Does he recall the first time he conducted the entire work? Ah well, that “first” is about to happen for him on February 5th

Attend! Experience – with these artists – your first Bach B Minor Mass. Or your 12thor your 100th. Live performance is always new and always a first, yes? “Dona Nobis pacem.”

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest First Baptist Church Portland Oregon

St. Paul’s Music Guild is offering a free live-streamed option for this performance. What a generous and compassionate offering to those who cannot attend in person. Tell your loved ones near and far; tell your local independent or assisted living centers. Here is the link.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Music Guild presents Bach’s B Minor Mass in Salem on Sunday, Feb. 5, 4 pm., at St. Paul Episcopal Church.

Back in business in Bend

The Bend A Cappella Festival at the Tower Theatre is back for the first time since 2020. On Friday and Saturday, February 17 and 18, choirs will wow you with their modern a cappella. And those choir participants, mostly students, will learn from one of the great master teachers of a cappella: Deke Sharon.

Let’s just take a moment to talk about this term – a cappella. You know what it means, don’t you? Unaccompanied choral singing. Well, yes, but in today’s a cappella, melody and harmony are often (and mind-blowingly) accompanied by vocal percussion. You’ll find yourself scanning the group wondering “who’s doing that”? 

Literally, a cappella means “of the chapel,” but this is not necessarily true in practice today. Also, there might be some choreography, but there might not be. And finally, about the spelling. Could we just agree to use, as do the Bend and other national Festivals, a cappella – not “a capella” or “acappella”? Sheesh! 

This sort of a cappella is a choral sound that has blossomed in the past 20-plus years into its own genre. It’s not better or lesser than; it’s not the new choral world order. It’s another way to make choral music – complex, vital, vocally innovative, with crisp rhythmic accuracy and pitch-perfect intonation. In other words, it’s great choral music. And if you have never attended an a cappella performance, Bend is a great place to see your first and get the answer to “who’s doing that?”

You’ll see Julia Voorhies, Oregon City High School music teacher, at the Bend Festival. She’ll be there shepherding her school’s a cappella group, Sound Check. In recent communication she said how very pleased the students are to be returning to Bend. Though she couldn’t immediately recall how many times they’ve gone to Bend over her eight years at the OCHS she does remember 2019 very well. Sound Check was voted first place that year and went on, with overwhelming community support, to a larger festival in Memphis. They sang in Bend in 2020, just shortly before the shut down, and gave this performance:

Voorhies conducts four choirs at OCHS. All 18 members of Sound Check are also members of the large Master Choir which participates yearly in the State Choral events. At the Bend Festival the students (and teachers) attend workshops with Sharon and hear all of the other choirs. But this year, Dani Wyeth, Tower Theatre Director of Education confirmed in email, “there is no competition aspect to the festival.” It’s not about the competition so much as the opportunity for students to showcase their art for an appreciative audience. Sound Check got to do that this past weekend when they performed at the Oregon Music Educators Association conference. Have a great return trip to Bend, Sound Check.

A cappella is legit choral art upon which students can build their lifelong love of music. Jason Sabino–yes, the same singer/conductor mentioned above–spent his high school years in vocal jazz, a close cousin to a cappella. He learned to sing in tune, to read music, to blend, to participate. It was his foundational music experience. Legit.

The Bend Tower Theatre A Cappella Festival is Friday, Feb. 17 and Saturday Feb.18 with all-day workshops and performances at the Tower Theatre. Tickets and more information here. A festival pass will allow you to attend all Friday and Saturday events and to see the fabulous professional a cappella headliners, Naturally 7, who are singing on Saturday night. Want individual tickets for just that Saturday show? Don’t wait. This will sell out.

Can’t make it to Bend? You have the opportunity to hear great a cappella music in the Willamette Valley this month. But this one IS ALL about competition. On January 26 several area high schools will perform at Sherwood High School in the West Region quarter-finals of the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA). The following day are the corresponding college quarter-finals (ICCA) at the Elsinore Theatre, Salem. The ICCA tournament was documented in the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect and its sequels (for which Sharon–yes, him again–served as music director). The location of the semi-finals has not been announced but the Portland area has been mentioned. We’ll let you know.

These competitions are put on by Varsity Vocals, who caught the a cappella wave on the rise. They’ve been holding the college competitions for 27 years (high school for 18) in the US, Canada and United Kingdom. The tournament participants and ticket information can be seen here.

Music (really) of the chapel 

The Chapel Royal, singers in the court of Henry IV of England, must have been bedazzled by the music of their visiting Byzantine counterparts. Imagine them listening in wonderment as the choral travelers from Constantinople “tuned the hall” before the Christmas festivities of 1400. It would have been unlike anything they’d heard before, and yet they might have felt a commonality of responsibility to their respective rulers and dedication to their God. 

Bring that yuletide scene to life with a seat at one of the four Cappella Romana concerts coming up in Eugene, Seattle and Portland January 19-22. In this choral program, “A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court”–prepared and conducted by Music Director Dr. Alexander Lingas–the singers will split their choral personalities, alternating between portrayals of the British Chapel Royal and their kinsmen from 3000 kilometers away, the Byzantine Royal Clergy. What a trip.

What can we really know about that extraordinary moment in time when Emperor of the Romans Manuel II Palaiologos assembled his entire entourage and traveled to England (and France) in a desperate attempt to secure funds and military support to use against the Ottoman Turk siege on Constantinople? Musically, thanks to some documented accounts, we know that Manuel brought the Royal Clergy, an integral component in liturgical and courtly ceremony. But what did these choirs sing during this time of diplomacy and exchange? Ahhh. To Lingas, Educator and Historical Musicologist, an inquiry like that means a deep dive into research, seeking choral treasure buried for centuries. And now, here they are. The old made new. Here’s a sample:

This concert could be a musicological “compare and contrast” lesson for you. One musical similarity you might detect between the two cultures is “their reliance on their respective repertories of traditional chant,” as Lingas writes in the liner notes of CR’s newly released CD of this program. Lingas’ notes continue “they differed, however, in their contemporary means of musical enrichment.” The Byzantine composers chose horizontal techniques including melismas and expanded vocal range. The English singers were experimenting, says Lingas, with “three part texture of voices moving largely in parallel above and below the chant.” Dare we say polyphony?

In a Chronicle of London from 1389 to 1483 is writ this passage about the visit:

In this yere was here the emperor of Constantynoble; and the kyng helde his Christemasse at Eltham; and men of London maden a gret mommyng to hym of xij (12) aldermen and there sones, for whiche they hadde gret thanke.

People reveled, instruments were played, entertaining theater, mumming, was staged. But we can only imagine the non-ecclesiastical music of the time as it was rarely written down. Lingas reports that “the palace in Constantinople in the later Middle Ages had a wind band” though we can only speculate about how it might have sounded. But music was part of everyday life, in and outside of the church. As it is today.

Listen to Lingas and Dr. Siren Çelik discuss this historic meeting and its music here:

For sure, being a Chapel Royal singer in Tudor London “was the best gig in England,” said Cappella Romana singer and educator Kerry McCarthy in a recent email. McCarthy is the author of two books (on Thomas Tallis and William Byrd) and is researching, for a third, what life as a Tudor-era Chapel Royal singer might have been like. “The year 1400 was right around the time when you start to get a class of expert professional singers in England who are really dedicated full-time to doing complex music.” 

Well, hello Cappella Romana. What this expert class of professional singers is doing in this concert is wickedly complex. The differences in tuning, intervals, notations, the languages! Lightening-fast vocal “wardrobe” changes. It is perhaps the first time anything like this has been attempted in a live concert. Let us appreciate what Cappella Romana brings to the art. Just weeks after this performance this busy world-renowned choir will perform some of this music and more in Boston. But we get them here, right at our doorstep. We lucky few.

Cappella Romana will perform in Eugene on Thursday, Jan. 19 (7:30) at Central Lutheran Church; Seattle on Friday, Jan. 20 (7:30) at St. James Cathedral; and two concerts in Portland on Saturday, Jan. 21 (8:00) at St. Mary’s Cathedral and Sunday, Jan. 22 (3:00) at The Madeleine Parish. Tickets here.

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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