Ah, Cappella!

Portland's remarkable choral group, Cappella Romana, performs an otherworldly concert of music by Arvo Pärt
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Arvo Pärt, a modern composer in the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition

Portland's remarkable choral group, Cappella Romana, performs an otherworldly concert of music by Arvo Pärt

It was hard to come back down to earth after Saturday'ꀙs concert by Cappella Romana left the audience suspended in a zone of otherworldly beauty. The Portland-based vocal chamber choir gave its first-ever summer offering in the area at West Seattle's Holy Rosary Church — a stop on its tour northward to perform in this year'ꀙs MusicFest Vancouver.

Cappella Romana was founded in 1991 by Alexander Lingas, an acclaimed scholar and interpreter who holds triple citizenship (U.S., Canadian, and Greek) and who was on hand to rehearse and conduct the current tour. (See a rehearsal clip here.) Can this group really still be such a well-kept secret in Seattle? The ensemble occupies a niche all its own — not just in the Northwest'ꀙs notable early music scene but for fans of contemporary choral music as well. It also stands apart as one of the few Northwest chamber choirs composed entirely of paid professional singers.

Westerners tend to think of chant in its familiar guise as the Gregorian chant of the Roman Catholic Church. But there is a whole other world that is its counterpart and is the central focus of Cappella Romana: the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The ensemble explores and champions the splendid variety of Byzantine and Slavic sacred music traditions. Its name refers to the post-Western Empire idea of Constantinople as the new Rome — the focal point where East and West come together. Cappella Romana'ꀙs signature programs might center around such topics as medieval Byzantine chant or ceremonial music written for the Hagia Sophia. (These can also be found in its current discography.)

Yet it also promotes the work of living composers who tap into various aspects of the Orthodox tradition, from the British Ivan Moody and John Tavener to the Greek-Canadian Christos Hatzis. Cappella Romana was well ahead of the curve in advocating the music of Arvo Pärt. (In 1994 it gave the North American premiere of his Passio.) Saturday was an all-Pärt program titled 'ꀜOdes of Repentance.'ꀝ

Like several other leading composers of his generation, Pärt (who was born in Estonia in 1935) flirted with complex serialism before he cleared away the slate to start afresh in a radically new direction. His study of the medieval choral music of his Orthodox tradition inspired a breakthrough. The fact that Pärt grounded his aesthetic in his religious faith made it all the more subversive while he was still a Soviet citizen. He emigrated to Western Europe in 1980, focusing increasingly on writing sacred choral music (although a new symphony — his Fourth — was just premiered this past January by the Los Angeles Philharmonic). 'ꀜHoly minimalism'ꀝ used to be the rather silly moniker applied to Pärt'ꀙs style, on account of its mix of repetitive musical processes and spiritual preoccupation.

Excerpts from Pärt'ꀙs monumental Kanon Pokajanen formed the centerpiece of Cappella Romana'ꀙs program. This is his longest a cappella choral work, which he composed piecemeal and out of sequence between 1989 and 1997. Lingas chose selections from the Kanon that were interspersed with three short hymns from the 1998 choral piece Triodion, the latter setting English texts. He pointed out that the composer himself 'ꀜcontinues to encourage performance of individual movements'ꀝ of the Kanon.

For this Canon of Repentance, Pärt sets Orthodox liturgical odes, in Church Slavonic, that are attributed to the 7th/8th-century St. Andrew of Crete as well as other traditional hymns and devotional prayers. The intricately structured canon poems are intended as part of a service focused on repentance. According to Orthodox spirituality, Lingas explained in a pre-concert talk, the goal of repentance is to refocus the understanding to see that sin is 'ꀜan estrangement from the natural order'ꀝ rather than a legalistic goof-up.

Even if the context sounds rather esoteric, Cappella Romana drew the listener in with the irresistible musical integrity of Pärt'ꀙs spartan but pregnant simplicity. His best-known technique evokes the sound of tolling bells. But the singers'ꀙ seamless ebb and flow brought to mind recurrent images of tidal surf as well, with its counterrhythms of wave and undertow. The ensemble adapts its size as needed, and the balance here of four sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and four basses was extraordinarily nuanced. The austerity of Pärt'ꀙs limited stepwise motifs (whole sections keep within the ambit of a minor third) made for a fascinating contrast with the luxurious acoustic of Holy Rosary'ꀙs cavernous and lofty nave: no wonder Cappella Romana has found this a favorite space for recording.

Articulation of dynamic changes was also impeccable — including the long pauses that are crucial to Pärt'ꀙs structures. These often provide a tinge of the spiritual drama that would otherwise be enhanced by harmonic change in standard Western music. Lingas chose the climactic 'ꀜPrayer after the Canon'ꀝ for the program'ꀙs penultimate piece and beautifully calibrated its majestic swelling and tapering of volume, which finally calms to an invincible serenity.

Cappella Romana'ꀙs Seattle appearances in thecoming season are scheduled to take place at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Montlake. This is a top-class ensemble that belongs on the must-hear list of any lover of choral music.


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