Cappella Romana review: A Falling Star Shines Bright

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


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 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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