alexander lingas

Safe Distance Sounds 3: Oregon voices

Recent recordings by Cappella Romana, the Broken Consort, Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Industry showcase Oregon choral and vocal music

Of all the music we’re missing in these days of suspended live performances, perhaps the most missed — and most lethal — is choral music. One of the first major outbreaks of Covid 19, after all, derived from a Northwest choir rehearsal, and every choral performance involves slinging a lot of breath and its hangers-on droplets around a stage.

And yet, choral music is to many of us the most life-giving music. Not just because it directly involves the breath — the same breath the virus threatens — but also because it combines musical and verbal communication. Even when we don’t even understand the language being sung, many of us crave the sound of the live human voice, especially when many of us are denied it during the lockdown when, sadly, we’re denied it. And it may be some time before we can hear it again live. Although, lots of folks are trying new things.

So, to continue our series of reviews of recent recordings of Oregon music (earlier installments covered jazz/improvised and chamber music), here are some choral, vocal and opera recordings that might help assuage the loss of live performances. For more Oregon voices on record, check ArtsWatch’s recent archives for Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch reviews of recent albums by Oregon Repertory Singers and In Mulieribus.

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Choral Arts Ensemble & Cappella Romana: many ways of being many 

Portland choirs sing music programmed and created by diverse and unified voices

Portland’s choral scene is so abundant it has its own calendar. With such an bounty of choirs, it’s no surprise that they represent many different ways of singing together. Two concerts in October—Choral Arts Ensemble’s season opener on October 13 at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, Cappella Romana’s Heaven and Earth on October 14 at St. Stephen Catholic Church—showcased two quite distinct approaches to creating choral music.

For CAE, it was their varied assortment of choral works, chosen collaboratively from their vast repertoire as a celebration of the ensemble’s long history of singing together; most of the selections, from Bach and Brahms to Ēriks Ešenvalds and Randall Thompson, were comfortably familiar, in a Western classical sort of way.

Cappella Romana performed ‘Heaven & Earth’ at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

For Cappella Romana, on the other hand, the collaborative element was a matter of composers and singers working together within a unique and unified spiritual musical tradition—Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine Chant, traditions which are neither overly familiar (at least to Westerners) nor especially comfortable. Both approaches are valid, of course, but more importantly both demonstrate a crucial sense of unity-in-diversity, spiritual-musical solidarity, e pluribus unum, many voices coming together as one voice, seeking spiritual solace and satisfaction.

Choral Arts Ensemble: Fifty Years of Singing Together

In the opening performance of the the first concert of their fiftieth season, I was immediately struck by Choral Arts Ensemble’s brilliant tuning of even the simplest chords. This would emerge as their forte, a vertical sense of intonation, melodies and chords integrated in a way totally distinct from, say, Franco-Flemish Renaissance polyphony. It’s easy to hear a connection between the group’s democratic vibe and their approach to style, tuning, repertoire, and tradition. It probably wouldn’t be going too far to call it a distinctly Protestant attitude.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland opened its 50th anniversary season with a concert at Rose City Park United Methodist Church.

That big, resonant, vertical sound carried all through the concert, from the opening work—Schubert’s Gloria, its reverberant opening cadences turning on finely-tuned leading-tones—down through the full sound of English composer Colin Mawby’s 1995 Ave Verum. On Joshua Shank’s 2007 Sleeping out Full Moon, on a text by poet and WWI veteran Rupert Brooke, colorful Whitacrey harmony illuminated the lines “to all glory, to all gladness, to the infinite height.”

The chords got all melty and romantic on Josef Rheinberger’s 1855 Abendlied (Evening Song), and although their handful of Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzer (Love Song Waltzes) were perhaps not as lucid in this full choir setting as the quartet version we heard from The Ensemble a few seasons back, they were instead all lush and brimming with sehnsucht. In Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Only in Sleep, on a text by the Pulitzer-winning American poet Sara Teasdale, choir and soloists sang major thirds to make your eyes water. Offsetting Ešenvalds and Teasdale’s melancholy, the choir brought out a bright, poppy, Swingle Singers sound for Jake Runestad’s jolly John Muir song, Come to the Woods.

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Arvo Pärt Festival review: Timeless and timely

Performances of leading contemporary composer's music bridge centuries and cultures

by JOHN PITMAN

Cappella Romana presented the first-ever festival in North America dedicated to the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt. The Estonian composer’s music is arguably the most performed of any living composer. It was a slight departure for Cappella Romana, best known for their performances of Byzantine, Russian and Greek Orthodox choral music.

The comprehensive festival in Portland gave audiences the chance to immerse themselves in many different aspects of Pärt’s music and his life. They featured a film, a lecture, and concerts of instrumental music as well as vocal works throughout the eight-day festival. I attended two of these concerts on the second weekend of this remarkable, and moving, celebration.

Cappella Romana sang music by Arvo Pärt at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Tom Emerson.

There is something about Pärt’s music that is at once powerful, yet also fragile, representing both extrovert and introvert. His music not only reflects the words of ancient texts, but also brings complex expression to the human experience. This is music that is both timeless and timely. One is able to become lost in the music, feeling as though they’ve entered a portal to a thousand years ago, and yet remain completely in touch with the current state of the world. Sunday’s concert at Reed College had this effect on me personally, with both vocal and instrumental pieces performed, but it was in Saturday’s performance at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on February 11 that I most intensely felt this phenomenon.

“Odes of Repentance”

Director Dr. Alexander Lingas did not present the music in the usual concert format, with applause expected between pieces, and an intermission, but in the form of a paraklesis, a service of prayer intended for the living. The absence of applause allowed the audience to focus intently on the music, which resonated beautifully throughout the cathedral. Pärt’s music was worthy of a space like this, as the “space” between notes and phrases is paramount to the composer’s unique voice. Much of Pärt’s music is based on his compositional principle which he called tintinnabuli (‘Little bells’), some of which is dependent on silence, but also on a reduction of materials to an essential level. That doesn’t mean the music is simplistic at all; it seems to invite the listener in so as to become a participant of sorts, rather than a passive observer, by focusing on the sounds as well as the space.

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Cappella Romana preview: Byzantium & beyond

Portland vocal ensemble's 25th anniversary concert reprises its first performance, which set the blueprint for its mix of medieval to modern music

When Alexander Lingas moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1990, the Greek Orthodox cathedral where he’d just been appointed associate cantor lay in ruins, devastated by the 1989 Loma Prieto earthquake. Lingas wanted to help the church rebuild – and the only contribution he could offer was music. The Portland native had sung in his Greek Orthodox church, with local choir Cantores in Ecclesia and with the Portland State Chamber choir, and even formed an early music ensemble of his own while studying at PSU. So he and his Portland musical friends piled into a van, and headed south to perform a benefit concert. The church offered them lodging and a lavish, post-concert spaghetti dinner with freshly cured Greek olives.

Cappella Romana in 1994.

Cappella Romana in 1994.

After hearing the Northwesterners sing Greek Orthodox music from ancient Byzantium as well as contemporary Greek-American composers and more, nearly 300 listeners donated money for cathedral reconstruction. And Lingas and friends decided to keep making music.

To evoke the Byzantine empire’s Roman heritage and the medieval Greek concept of a religious world that embraced the far-flung lands of the old Roman Empire, he named the group Cappella Romana — Roman chapel. This weekend, the ensemble performs the same program in Seattle and Portland.

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Cappella Romana review: Musical time travel

Vocal ensemble's Passion performance transports listeners to millennium-old sacred service.

Cappella Romana, Portland’s premier choir, is on a roll. They’ve been stepping up their touring schedule with high-profile engagements around the country and abroad, gave the world premiere of Maximilian Steinberg’s 1923 Passion Week last season to a glowing Wall Street Journal review by Artswatch’s Brett Campbell, and added several recordings to an already substantial discography. Their 20th CD, Good Friday in Jerusalem, was released last week and vaulted to the top spot among vocal new releases (it’s currently sold out); it also debuted this week at no. 8 on Billboard’s classical chart. So you can imagine the CD release concerts the weekend before—cases of Krug, stretch limos, the usual.

Actually, they were exactly the kind of affair you’d expect from Cappella, with solemn processions and superb performances of melismatic chant cloaked in antiquity.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Many years ago, I wrote that Alexander Lingas, Cappella’s founder and artistic director, “has a gift that most classical concert promoters would kill for: an uncanny ability to assemble large and devoted audiences for programs that the vast majority of the concert-going public would find hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull. It is difficult to imagine anyone else turning the earliest chant into le dernier cri.” (I learned years later that—a highlight of my professional life—the phrase “hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull” was printed on a t-shirt worn by Lingas himself.) That was apropos a program of Roman chant; this program reached even further back into the past, with excerpts from a 10th-century Passion service including chant from the eighth century derived from earlier compositions.

On a strictly sonic level, the concert at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was magnificent (though I’d love to have heard the matinee performance in the spacious, ringing acoustic of St. Mary’s Cathedral as well). As with last year’s concerts of Finnish Orthodox music, it was especially satisfying to hear the singers perform music they’d already worked to a fine polish for committing to disc. The ten men filled the space with dark resonance, making effortless work of melismatic unison melodies and rock-solid drones, and the pacing was measured but unflagging.

Beyond just the sound, however, was the humbling realization that this was a telling of the Passion as it would likely have sounded over a millennium ago in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem complex built around the site of the crucifixion and entombment of Christ. There are limits to sound recreation, of course, but this configuration of Cappella had impeccable credentials as a kind of Byzantine supergroup of cantor-scholars including Lingas, his City University of London colleague Spyridon Antonopoulos, frequent Cappella collaborator and composer Ioannis Arvanitis, protopsaltis Stelios Kontakiotis (first chanter of one of Greece’s leading pilgrimage sites), and John Michael Boyer, protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco. (Listening to Boyer’s voice develop its regal presence over 15 years with Cappella has been one of the more gratifying benefits of following the ensemble.)

GoodFridayInJerusalem-300x300The concert also invited a listener to delve into the expressive potential of this ancient music, a kind of artistic expression that, because the rigors and self-negating ethos of the medieval church are worlds away from the nakedly personal poetry of, say, Schubert, we have little ability to grasp. But it was impossible not to hear the laments of Mary at the foot of the cross and not be moved.

My first experience of Cappella was a performance of another setting of the Passion, Arvo Pärt’s, over 20 years ago; the journey from that to this has been profound, through many layers of musical history. I am reminded of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, where an 18th-century coffered ceiling covers a medieval basilica, which itself sits atop a 4th-century church with a former Mithraic temple in its basement. Standing there, on what was originally a republican-era private house, you can hear a trickle of water from an ancient source. Good Friday in Jerusalem went deep, and it sounded close to the spring from which poured centuries of sacred music.

James McQuillen is the classical music writer for The Oregonian.

Sing Awakening: Portland’s flowering choral landscape

The City of Roses is also a city of choruses.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland's YU Contemporary in March.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s YU Contemporary in March.

Editor’s note: this is the second in ArtsWatch’s spring look at contemporary choral music. See Jeff Winslow’s analysis of today’s choral compositions here.

by BRUCE BROWNE

“There is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aureluis ‘Meditations’

A happy insight came to me indirectly last spring, from an event where hundreds of choral musicians appeared together, representing eight choirs. All Saints Catholic Church was the venue for an outpouring of spiritual and financial support for one of our own, Brian Tierney. Reflecting afterward on the variety of sounds that we had heard, I became aware of the several changes that had come about in six years my family had been gone from Portland. And in that time, Portland had cultivated a new choral landscape. Significant. Dramatic.

There are new faces in front of two of Portland’s heirloom choirs. Oregon Repertory Singers and Choral Arts Ensemble have new directors, Ethan Sperry and David DeLeyser. And these two join a cadre of new, smaller choirs conducted by energetic new talents who have blossomed on the scene: Katherine Fitzgibbon, Resonance Ensemble; Anna Song, In Mulieribus; Patrick McDonough, The Ensemble; and Ryan Heller, Portland Vocal Consort.

These new, downsized groups are what I would call “boutique choirs,” not at all a pejorative insinuation. I think it’s a good word that meshes with Portland’s boutique-y wine, beer and visual arts scene and general quirkiness, as seen on say, “Portlandia.” With these newbies comes the infusion of new ideas and styles. And they share similarities.

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As Alexander Lingas beheld the shattered remains of San Francisco’s Annunciation Cathedral, devastated in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake a few months earlier, he wanted to help. The singer had moved to the city in June 1990 with his new wife, Ann, a violinist who was studying at the Conservatory of Music. The couple joined the city’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, where Lingas, then a musicology graduate student at the University of British Columbia, became lampadarios, or assistant cantor.

 

Lingas had arrived at a troubled time: the Annunciation Cathedral lay in ruins, and the church actually held services in the Bausch & Lomb building. The city’s orthodox community was beginning to figure out how to rebuild. For an impoverished graduate student, financial assistance was out of the question. The one thing Lingas could offer was music.

Alexander Lingas and the singers

From that seed, planted in the aftermath of disaster, arose a project that would not only raise a fallen cathedral, but also help revive the faded music of a fallen empire. After rebuilding the collapsed church, Lingas would construct a career for himself, and a new edifice of ancient and modern sounds steeped in music and culture of the Roman Byzantine empire.

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