Sharing faith in the transcendent power of exquisite choral literature

Cantores in Ecclesia and Cappella Romana share faith in the transcendent power of exquisite choral literature

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August, 2021:

WILLIAM BYRD FESTIVAL, GRAND FINALE OF PORTLAND CHORAL SEASON, OPENS!

This headline ached to be written. Cantores in Ecclesia, the choral core of the William Byrd Festival, had gone forward with faith that by this August they could sing together again. For the second year in a row, it was not to be.

Blake Applegate, conductor of Cantores in Ecclesia, had his first pandemic concert go/no-go decision to make on the weekend of March 14, 2020. His adult and youth choirs were prepared for a performance of James MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross” and anticipating the arrival of British guest conductor David Hill.

Applegate’s wife Anna Song, whose choir In Mulieribus was performing at the Northwestern American Choral Directors Association conference in Spokane, WA, had just let him know the conference was shutting down early. His decision became a fait accompli. The MacMillan performance and the choir’s liturgical offerings at Holy Rosary Catholic Church were cancelled.

Cantores in Ecclesia, like so many other choirs, would not sing together for a long time.

Blake Applegate conducting Cantores in Ecclesia sing Durufle's Requiem at Mt. Angel in 2018. Photo courtesy of CiE.
Blake Applegate conducting Cantores in Ecclesia at Mt. Angel in 2018. Photo by Sarah Wright.

As Applegate was cancelling, Mark Powell, Executive Director of Cappella Romana, was–with a bunch of help from his friends–pulling off a performance switcheroo of prestidigitorial proportions, as chronicled in “Covideo” (OAW, March 15, 2020). Via livestream, sans audience, Cappella Romana went ahead with the Portland performance of Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy, conducted as planned by guest director Benedict Sheehan.

Gutsy move by all involved. The broadcast, still available here, features basso profundo Glenn Miller grounding humanity to the earth while the choir sends prayers of mercy to the heavens. Timely then and now.

Cappella Romana too, would shut down. Right? Well, public concerts and recording sessions, yes; the ever churning infrastructure of Cappella Romana, no. Under the organization’s record label, Cappella Records, post-production was in final stages for the “Hymns of Kassiani” recording. 

That CD was released to high acclaim in April of this year. Alexander Lingas, Founder and Artistic Director and John Michael Boyer, Associate Music Director, continued their scholarly work, researching Eastern and Western Orthodox liturgical music, the heart of Cappella Romana’s programming.

Sponsor

Lingas, Oxford and City, University of London academician, has not been able to travel to Portland since the beginning of the pandemic, but his virtual profile – in interviews, lectures, and as DJ for his series called “Playlist” – has been significant. He and Cappella Romana artists are featured in several online interviews, including an especially fascinating one from September of 2020: an in-depth account of the joint project with Stanford University Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and Cappella Romana in producing the “Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia” CD released in late 2019 to rave reviews.

While Cantores in Ecclesia singers have remained distanced from one another until very recently, Cappella Romana singers were able to sing together this July. They reunited for a recording session, in association with St. John of Damascus Society, singing Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation. This collaborative choral work by six composers (one of whom is Boyer) will share a CD with Sir John Taverner’s Ikon of Light. That CD will be released later this year.

Cappella Romana. Photo courtesy of the choir.
Cappella Romana. Photo courtesy of the choir.

Both choral organizations sing “church” music and sing in churches–but, and this might seem to some like splitting numes, they are not church choirs. The true test: check Yelp for “church choirs, Portland, Oregon” – they aren’t there. Their singers and audiences are of all religious faiths, or no religious faiths. They share faith in the transcendent power of exquisite choral literature.

More interesting commonality: both groups are thirty-somethings (Cappella Romana about to celebrate its 30th and Cantores in Ecclesia turning 39). Both conductors have both been with their organizations from the very beginning: Lingas as founder and Artistic Director, Applegate first as singer and then as conductor since 2010. 

Lingas and Applegate began their musical journeys in Portland, crossing paths as performers and students. Lingas, a tenor, sang in Cantores in Ecclesia as a young college student and recalls first getting to know Applegate as a fellow singer; Applegate, also a tenor, sang in Cappella Romana for a number of years. Both attended Portland State University as students of Bruce Browne and sang in the Chamber Choir. And then they zeroed in on their passions.

How cool is that! To pursue that which you loved in your youth, fashion it through study and perseverance into your life’s work, and then share it with others.

Long distance relationships are common to both choirs. Lingas lives in Didcot, Oxfordshire, England; Boyer lives in San Francisco. Byrd Festival Artistic Director Mark Williams, who conducts Cantores in Ecclesia during the Festival, lives in the UK. Several Cappella Romana singers live out of Oregon. Both groups collaborate often with guest conductors and artists from other parts of the US and around the world.

Endearingly, the origins of both choirs trace back to one Portland church musician: Dean Applegate, Blake’s father. The elder Applegate’s dream of Cantores in Ecclesia was brought to life in 1983 when St. Patrick’s Church in Northwest Portland gave them a home, naming them choir in residence. The first 18 years of the choir’s interesting existence would be in that parish. Lingas sang in that choir and says, with affection, that his association with Dean Applegate and Cantores in Ecclesia inspired him to create Cappella Romana.

The elder Applegate, who also deserves credit as co-founder of Portland’s highly respected William Byrd Festival, is pleased that these two guys have retained their passion and purpose. He eloquently characterizes the choirs as sharing the origins and beauty of “two different ecclesiastical aesthetics, one Roman and one Byzantine.”

Blake Applegate conducting Cantores in Ecclesia sing Durufle's Requiem at Mt. Angel in 2018. Photo courtesy of CiE.
Blake Applegate and Cantores in Ecclesia performing Durufle’s Requiem at Mt. Angel in 2018. Photo by Sarah Wright.

Blake Applegate tends this legacy with devotion, steadfastly bringing Roman Catholic music traditions to the Portland choral community. Lingas, whose own dream began by inviting some of his Portland friends to sing, has nurtured Cappella Romana into a choir whose artistry and scholarship in presenting church music of the Byzantine Empire is revered worldwide.

Indeed, Cappella Romana have just returned from an international tour. First they went to Ireland, were joined by singers from Greece and…oh golly, there’s got to be a better way to tell of this epic journey. Let’s presume upon Homer: sing in me, O Muse!

The Cappelliad 

So in Portland for the winged journey did Cappella Romana ready itself, likewise singers from elsewhere in the US, UK and from Greece, all equipped with face shields and pierced with lifesaving serum. Meanwhile Lingas to Ireland departed for joyous reunion with his forces and all travelers descended upon Limerick for a Fest of Early Music and to render their visible forms and voices upon film to be seen at another such later Fest in Romania. They rendered medieval Byzantine Chant from the Monastery at Grottaferrata, efforts buoyed by benevolent wisdom of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In second great pursuit of heavenly voice they electronically preserved upon disc two works in memorial of souls departed: the Panikhida (Choral Memorial Service) of the late Sir John Taverner and Byzantine funeral chants written in English by their own leader, John Michael Boyer, upon Sir John’s passing. 

Strengthened by these lofty achievements, the artists of Cappella Romana did away to Netherlands and the Utrecht Early Music Festival, grandest assemblage of such in the world. And there, in third such appearance amidst fellow practitioners, this proud representation of Oregon’s Portland, Cappella Romana, brought to live stage the acoustics of Istanbul’s iconic monastery with “Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia” the record of which received much accolade. With this they concluded both Festival and journey and returned to homelands well known and loved.

Odyssey homer-ward

Cappella Romana is about to offer Portland audiences a far better Homer – home concert that is. Their 30th Season Resurrection kicks off later this month with the program “A Covid Requiem: Music for Remembrance” dedicated to the many lives lost to Covid-19. On the program are the requiem works by Taverner and Boyer, recorded in Limerick. 

These concerts are at St. Mary’s Cathedral on September 25, 8:00 pm and The Madeleine Parish, September 26, 3:00 pm. Live-streaming plans are being finalized and will be posted on their website. Proof of Covid-10 vaccinations are required. Masks will be required.

Cantores in Ecclesia, masked and vaccinated, began singing the liturgy together again several weeks ago. They are choir in residence at Holy Rosary but also sing services at St. Agatha’s Church and other parishes. Liturgical participations, to which all are welcome, can be tracked on their website; larger events are on the PDX choral calendar

Applegate spoke about the contrast between Cantores in Ecclesia’s major choral events and the “comfort and constancy of providing music for the liturgy.” Cantores makes beautiful music either way. Their intent is to reschedule the James MacMillan “Seven Last Words from the Cross” for this season. 

And Applegate hopes to schedule works of composer Thomas Tallis in acknowledgment of Cantores and Cappella scholar-singer Kerry McCarthy’s recent Oxford University Press publication Tallis

Cantores in Ecclesia’s “season” doesn’t roll out with a flourish but they just might be Emily Dickinson’s model for “Hope” in which the music “never stops – at all.” And with undiminished faith they have recently posted the August 2022 William Byrd Festival dates.

There’s just a whole lot of faith in the choral community right now. Faith that we can sing together without fear. Faith that audiences will find their way back to the joy of live singing. It’s what we have for today. Hold on to it.

September, 2021:

RESURRECTION! CAPPELLA ROMANA OPENS 30TH CONCERT SEASON LIVE.

It is so good to be able to write those words.

Cappella Romana. Photo courtesy of the choir.
Cappella Romana. Photo courtesy of the choir.

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About the author

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

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