Cappella Romana review: drones, overtones and unknowns

Portland vocal ensemble's 'Venice in the East' concert offered splendid singing and rare repertoire -- but needed more variety

by BRUCE BROWNE

Choral music is as much poetry and word recognition as it is melody, harmony and the sonic elements of the human voice. We listeners engage in both spheres, sometimes aware of the relationship, sometimes just focusing on one aspect, then the other. Amidst musical perfection, the total engagement was missing last weekend at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cappella Romana’s concert, Venice in the East.

Cappella Romana performed ‘Venice in the East’ at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Present were exquisite moments of choral artistry, impeccable tuning, bravura singing by all and thoughtful phrasing, especially by Michael John Boyer and Mark Powell, who together stood at the pinnacle of the solo work, especially many of the delicious priestly intonations. And, Dr. Lingas (who often multitasked in a singing role) and some of the singers, such as Boyer and tenor Spyridon Antonopoulos (a welcome new tenor voice) certainly displayed emotional engagement, encouraging the listener to join in at that level.

But except for the historically fascinating “Christ is Risen” from the Codex Faenza 117, which wove Greek and Latin traditions in music and language, and three other Latin selections from Liber sacerdotalis, the texts were all Greek – to me, inaccessible. More on this shortly.

The theme of this concert, Venice in the East, has historical appeal. Dr. Lingas presented a musical perspective of the close ties of Venice to Greece, particularly in Crete, beginning in the sixth century. The sharing of religious traditions – liturgy, ritual and music – was palpable in chant, embellishments and in text.

In the first half, Photini Downie Robinson and Kerry McCarthy matched their voices in dissonant ecstasy in their duet “Cum autem venissent” (But when they came to the place) from the Liber Sacerdotalis. In the following pieces, listening to all the vivid ornaments, generated overtones, modal inflections, and multi hued colors was like watching a synchronized swimming team. Only in the Nicene Creed (1552) did the raised and lowered leading tones not sound confident.

The concert’s second half held some moments of relief and coloristic change. The groups sang a motet of St. John of Damascus with harmonic and polyphonic interest: there was more than just chant over top of drones to be heard.

Cappella Romana’s ‘Venice in the East’ concert at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The quality of scholarship and historic authenticity is a hallmark of Cappella Romana’s 27-year history. They set a high bar in this regard and succeed. But the challenge in any concert is for the music to be accessible to the mind and the heart. The music, after all, was not originally written for academic purposes.

Performers can make the intellectual aspects of music like this more accessible to audiences. Program notes can provide more information on what to listen for in the pieces. Sometimes definitions can be useful for liturgical vocabulary; troparian, for example (a Byzantine hymn form). The program can be reordered for more variety — or shortened.

As for matters of the heart… the choir is to be commended for their emotional attachment to the music. Singing in Greek is a mouthful – they have worked very hard for their authenticity of pronunciation. But with few cognates for the Western ear, following the Greek text in the program is difficult. Repetitious harmonic language and strophic form (repetition of verses, same music, different text), and little variance in tempi stifled the programmatic flow. It’s a bit like sitting down with a 60 year old Port wine. First sips are rich, haunting, delectable; chugging a tumbler full might leave one not wanting to go that way again.

Fortunately, the concert did offer some compensatory variety. In the aforementioned “Christ has risen,” one of the most telling moments occurred when, in the third and final iteration of “Christ has risen” (which was in Latin) the music suddenly turned toward a full harmonic treatment. It was like the previously sepia-toned Dorothy waking up in color in the Land of OZ. Ahhh!

Perhaps recognizing the need to “leave ‘em on a high” is why conductor Lingas programmed an encore. After the lengthy strophic Kalophonic (chant) Theotokion (hymn) for Cardinal Bessarion, Mode 4 by Ioannis Plousiadenos (1429-1500), the choir presented an aural palate cleanser “Ave sanctissima Maria,” from the middle 1500s by Cretan composer Franghiskos Leontaritis, student of the famous Italian Renaissance composer Palestrina and colleague of Willaert in Venice.

“This music helps me get into a Zen state” was overheard as the audience settled in. Let’s not even touch the delightful religious cross-over implied here; let’s admit that there is a facsimile of mantra-ness in the droning, repetitive musical elements. If the gentleman quoted gets his Zen on through this, may he rock on.

It is Cappella Romana’s musical excellence that’s the biggest draw, of course, and this concert was an indication of why the choir and Dr. Lingas are known and respected around the world. They maintain the choral arts with integrity, bringing a variety of styles to life; more variety would have enlivened this concert.

Cappella Romana, already performing for Portland and Seattle audiences, is stretching farther south next year. A major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts will help fund an inaugural series in San Francisco at the imposing setting of St. Ignatius Parish on the University of San Francisco campus. This Venice in the East concert will be one of the three concerts: September 29, 2018, Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil; January 5, 2019, Christmas in Ukraine; May 11, 2019, Venice in the East. A full slate of all concerts performed and sponsored by Cappella Romana for 2018-19 is available on the choir’s website www.cappellaromana.org.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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