Singing peace and lighting the world: Bach Cantata Choir and Cappella Romana head into the holiday season

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Bach Cantata Choir welcomes soloists to stage for their first live concert offering of 2021. At 2 p.m. on Nov. 21 at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, four stellar soloists–all familiar Northwest vocal artists–will mix and match their talents to offer some of the most beloved solos and duets from Bach’s cantatas and the Christmas Oratorio. Soprano Vakaré Petroliūnaitė and bass Jacob Herbert sing “Liebster Jesu, mein verlangen” (Dearest Jesus, my desire) from Cantata BWV 32.

From Cantata BWV 200, “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (I shall acknowledge his name) will be sung by Hannah Penn, who then joins Les Green for duet “Seid wachsam, ihr heiligen Wächter” (Be watchful you holy watchmen, Cantata BWV 149). Green and Penn will again solo in the Christmas Oratorio’s “Frohe Hirten” (Happy Shepherds) for tenor and “Schliesse, mein Herz” (Enclose my heart) for alto. The vocalists will be accompanied by local BCC chamber orchestra members.

This special recital, one of the few Bach offerings out there this local season, marks yet another joyous return to live music in Portland.

New and old—not or

Next month, Cappella Romana returns to the stage for their second concert of the 2021-2022 season, and they will sing beautifully. It is one of the absolutes of this professional choir. Tuning will be exquisite and vowels blended; vocal lines, conveying the text, will spin. Cappella Romana singers are superb vocal artists and Portland is fortunate to be the home of such a renowned choral ensemble.

But choral excellence is only one of the reasons to go to a Cappella Romana concert. There are several more reasons and they all seem to be in evidence at the upcoming program on December 3 in Seattle and the 4th and 5th in Portland.

Cappella Romana welcomes Benedict Sheehan back to Portland as conductor and composer. His last conducting engagement with CR was on the eve of the pandemic shutdown, when the choir was able to offer one live-feed performance of Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. For the upcoming performances Sheehan returns to conduct his own English language Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It’s the only piece on this program, and it is unique.

Since Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine choral works do not show up on too many community choir concerts the uniqueness of CR programming–relative to the rest of our local choral scene–is always a great audience draw. Well-known, obscure, or contemporary works of historic significance to the Church are carefully curated by Cappella Romana founder and Artistic Director Dr. Alexander Lingas. The significance, simply stated, of Sheehan’s work is that, while it is musically embedded in tradition, it’s brand spanking new. Firmly rooted in place while moving forward. Here’s a bit of the backstory.

Sheehan is Director of Music at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery in Pennsylvania; Artistic Director of The Saint Tikhon Choir; and the CEO and founder of the Artefact Institute, a collection of “culture creators.” He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and creative partner, Talia, and their seven daughters.

Sheehan was commissioned by the PaTRAM (Patriarch Tikhon Russian American Music) Institute to compose music for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. PaTRAM’s mission is to “foster the authentic and original splendor of Russian Orthodox choral music together with its astounding spiritual depth, in both the English and Slavonic languages.” The commission conditions were few: a timeline; the text must be in English; and music in the style of the Russian music tradition. It still had to sound like the Orthodox church. 

Sponsor

New and old. Not or. The Divine Liturgy–the primary worship service of the Eastern Orthodox Church–has ancient roots but is only as old as those who assemble in common prayer. The most widely used Liturgy is that introduced by St. John Chrysostom of Antioch (347-407), prolific Christian author and eloquent orator. Portions of the Divine Liturgy formulated by St. Basil of Caesarea (330-379) are also still employed throughout the church year.

Sheehan was given no mandates of specific compositional techniques, such as melodic material, voicing, or harmonic language. But Sheehan’s scholarship, and his personal and familial immersion in Orthodox practice, led him to fashion his own criteria. “What there are in abundance in Orthodox music are long-established norms” (Sheehan interview with James Altena in Fanfare Magazine, March/April 2021). Link to reprint posted January 27, 2021. 

Sheehan’s previous compositions are evidence that he understood the norms of Russian Orthodox style, but he is not averse to departing from Orthodox traditional sounds in his other sacred pieces. The Crucifixion, sung here by St. Tikhon Choir, is a stunning work marrying text and music, venturing in and out of new and old. Sheehan’s compositional voice is his own.

And thus fortified by both normative constraint and artistic independence, Sheehan began composing his Divine Liturgy in 2016 and finished in 2018. He directed the St. Tikhon Choir for a recording of the Divine Liturgy, and again in a video recorded celebration at the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Cappella Records released the audio premiere and St. Nicholas video in October 2020. In the CD booklet notes, Sheehan describes his musical voice as “at once reminiscent of medieval Eastern chant and of 20th-century minimalism, of American folk singing, and of the high tradition of Western church music”.

Sheehan is pleased to be one of the first American composers to premiere an English-language liturgy. “I feel very blessed to have support from some of our church hierarchs, along with many members of the clergy and faithful” (booklet notes). And yet there are arguments in opposition to the idea of an English language liturgy, and there will be cries of heresy for not using a specific melody in a certain way. And of course, the all-encompassing lament that “it’s not the way we’ve always done it.” Sheenan will handle this well when he recalls that Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff were confronted similarly for their Divine Liturgies. He is quite willing to engage in civil conversation on the topic.

To that point, Sheehan was a panelist in a fascinating and illuminating May 2021 discussion in which this topic was raised–a webinar co-hosted by CR and Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, featuring Lingas, Sheehan, ethnomusicologist and archivist Dorothy Berry, and choral conductor and Orthodox music composer Kevin Lawrence.

Sheehan’s command of compositional techniques and his ability to meld text and music propel the approximately 75 minute concert presentation. One unifying feature is a motif found in several movements. Listen to the 5-note unifying motif as it is set in the final minutes of the “Cherubic Hymn” (Mvt. 9).

A special treat on this concert will be a world premiere of Sheehan’s setting of the “Kontakion for Christmas” proper, commissioned by Cappella Romana especially for this program

You might see some familiar faces in the video above of St. Tikhon Choir: those are Cappella Romana singers. And when you attend this concert you will see some of the St. Tikhon Choir members, like soprano Talia Sheehan. And some renowned singers not specifically attached to either choir–like basso profundo Glenn Miller–are engaged to add depth, literally, to the choral sound. Mark Powell, Executive Director of Cappella Romana and one of those doubly represented singers, confirms that the community of Orthodox choral music singers is pleasantly cross-pollinated. Powell will be singing the role of deacon and Michael Hawes, priest on the CD recording, will reprise the role in this concert.

So now you can listen for all of the wonderful craft, vocal and compositional technique, marvel at the blending of traditional Russian and Western musical styles. You’ll not be disappointed. Or you can also settle in, read a few program notes, acknowledge the artists when they enter and then, as the text of the Cherubic hymn suggests, “set aside the cares of life.” Divine.

Cappella Romana presents Benedict Sheehan’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Dec. 3 (7:30 pm) in Seattle at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Dec. 4 (8 pm) at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Dec. 5 (3 pm) in Lake Oswego at Our Lady of the Lake Parish. A video concert premiere is scheduled for Dec. 10, 2021. Tickets for all events are available here

Masks are required and proof of vaccination with ID will be checked at the door. 

Connections

Contemporary culture

Forever Home (HGTV/Scott Brothers Entertainment). Home renovation shows top the viewer charts in the last two years. The Forever Home premise: the house has a firm foundation, the neighbors are almost like family, the children were born there and have their birthday heights scratched onto the pantry door frame. The old oak in the backyard has deep and far reaching roots but a good trim will keep it vital. The house doesn’t get torn down, it gets revitalized, with new colors, more open concept and repurposed space to accommodate all who dwell within. Data to support this reflection was collected in numerous hours of personal research.

Food: Slovenian sour mushroom soup

Memory: Through late November, then into December, the Baba would return from the mailbox empty handed. “No mushrooms yet.” She would wring her hands and pray for the box from Czechoslovakia to arrive the next day. Or the next. “Don’t worry,” said her family. But worry she did. The mushrooms her sister picked and dried in the “old country” were for the soup on Christmas Eve; they were essential. And then they would arrive like a Christmas miracle and tradition would continue.

Adjustment to Baba’s recipe—fresh mushrooms or those you dry yourself without additives.

2 lbs fresh mushroom sliced; porcine are ideal, cremini are fine

1 medium onion diced

1 cup of sauerkraut juice (No misprint! Drain and squeeze the liquid out of a large jar of kraut)

5 cups of water

roux (2 tbsp. flour blended with 3/4 cup of soup liquid). Soup should still be brothy not thick.

Sweat the onions, then mushrooms in scant oil. Don’t brown. Gradually add in the liquids and let the mushrooms and onions simmer in broth. Taste and add more juice for more ‘sour’ (tone down the sour with a pinch of sugar if desired). Even better the day after. Leftover kraut = reuben sandwiches.

Singing Peace and Lighting the World

In Southeast Portland

On November 20, at 7:30 pm, at Unity of Portland, Satori Men’s Chorus will perform for you, for their families and friends, for themselves…for fun. These are Men Singing Peace. Find out more about their program and who they are

In Hillsboro

Also on November 20th at 6 pm, the City of Hillsboro tree lighting ceremony will include the Oregon Chorale singing a few pieces from their upcoming concert (on Dec. 5th) and holiday tunes. More information about this at the Hillsboro Civic Center Plaza here.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

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