Cappella Romana review: Arctic Light

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.

A few numbers in, Pekka Attinen’s third Cherubic Hymn must indeed have been a big challenge to sing, opening and closing with sections of slithering harmonic shifts worthy of Wagner or Strauss. Again, however, the group remained sure-footed, or rather sure-voiced, and I was reminded of recordings of the Swedish Radio Choir directed by the famed Eric Ericson, one of Nuoranne’s teachers. The bulk of the work was sweetly direct however. One striking passage played off octaves in two voices against thirds in two others, a simple yet rich effect one might find in Brahms.

The blockbuster of the evening was a set of two excerpts from the Vespers of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia. One, a prayer, featured a slow hypnotic swaying between major and minor modes, pivoting unusually on the third of the chord in the outer voices. The prayer turned urgent as each sway became propelled by the entire group sliding up to their pitches from the depths. The second, “Evening Hymn,” returned to a calmer swaying, but now heartfelt melodies arched overhead. Throughout this challenging material the group maintained a laserlike focus and intensity. After the music finally subsided I couldn’t suppress a low “wow,” and spotted smiles on other faces, suggesting they’d been wowed too.

Most of the works presented, however, were much more restrained in their musical material, sticking closely to familiar European liturgical practice in major and minor tonality, with occasional excursions into more archaic modes. (A particularly striking excursion was Timo Ruottinen’s setting of Psalm 103, which had a delicate blues feel.) Restraint did not translate in any way to dullness, however. Throughout the concert, I was struck by the wide variety of ways in which voices were grouped and distributed, and the fluid counterpoint, as if living in a land which is frozen so much of the year makes composers especially appreciative of all things liquid.

In this context, the music of the lone non-Finn on the program, Ivan Moody, stood apart. Moody is a recognized expert on Orthodox church music and even teaches in Finland, but the work he selected for this concert, “O you apostles,” had a unique austerity. There was no lack of variety, but the composer seemed to respond most strongly to the funereal aspect of the Dormition of the Mother of God, and the group sang, as if in sympathy, with a special, almost painful purity.

A  similar text appeared in the first of a group of four hymns by Peter Mirolybov. It had a call and response form, with the responses first in close harmony and later in almost flowery solos. Austerity vanished and we were back in the land of flow. All the hymns in this final work on the program were distinctive musical personalities making strong statements, including a poignant dirge in the same vein as Henryk Gorecki’s bestselling Third Symphony and a glorious finale in which the men’s voices evoked ringing bells.

After a concert as impressively programmed and performed as this, it’s tempting to proclaim Cappella Romana the best choral group in Portland. The truth, fortunately for once, is more complicated. There is a handful of top groups here, with a significant and stabilizing overlap in singers, and I’ve had the same reaction to all of them at one time or another. It’s a great time to be a choral music enthusiast in Portland!

Portland composer Jeff Winslow is a board member of Cascadia Composers.

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One Response.

  1. Timothy Swain says:

    It was a SUPERB concert, & this review is also superb! Of particular note were the two movements from the vespers of Rantavaara’s VIRGILIA; magnificent as Jeff Winslow notes!
    How great to see such vocal artistry in Oregon: how right he is in his last sentence to the review!

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