Cappella Romana: A cure for cloying holiday music

The Portland-based choral group brings a new take on a Rachmaninoff score ruled "too modern" to be performed in the church.
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The Portland-based choral group brings a new take on a Rachmaninoff score ruled "too modern" to be performed in the church.

Still trying to burn off the excess calories from last month’s surfeit of cloying holiday music? Cappella Romana has wisely scheduled its winter program in January, when the group’s brand of meditative sacred music from the Orthodox tradition is just what the doctor ordered.

This Saturday the Portland-based chamber choir returns to Seattle for a program that should arouse interest for several reasons. They’ll be performing Rachmaninoff’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, a major but rarely heard work. Cappella Romana is known for its expertise — both artistic and scholarly — in Byzantine and Slavic sacred music. Their thoughtfully designed programs typically explore works that are seldom encountered elsewhere in the concert scene. Meanwhile, anyone who recently enjoyed Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony’s recent Rachmaninoff Festival (a two-evening extravaganza presenting all four of his piano concertos) will encounter a lesser-known perspective on the composer.

“As soon as Rachmaninoff finished the Divine Liturgy, he wrote a friend to say that he hadn’t composed anything with such pleasure for a long time,” says Mark Powell, executive director and one of Cappella Romana’s principal singers. “It’s not as well known as the later All-Night Vigil, which we performed last year, but he had a deep personal commitment to this piece.”

While Rachmaninoff was first touring the United States as a composer-pianist in the winter of 1909, he suffered a tremendous bout of homesickness — a foretaste of the pain he would face as a permanent exile from his native Russia following the 1917 Revolution. Perhaps this explains the composer’s urge to reconnect with his roots upon returning in 1910 to his beloved estate at Ivanovka (a few hundred miles southeast of Moscow).

From the distance of many years, Rachmaninoff would recall Ivanovka’s oceanic vistas, “where the waves are endless fields of wheat, rye and oats, stretching as far as the eye can see.”

It was in this environment that Rachmaninoff eagerly set to work on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. He wasn’t conventionally pious — in fact he side-stepped the Russian Orthodox Church’s strictures to marry his cousin — yet the strains of liturgical music figure throughout his secular scores like haunting memories. (Just listen to the chant-like melody that unspools in the opening of his famous Third Piano Concerto.)

Even if the piano is the instrument that first comes to mind when his name is mentioned, Rachmaninoff retained a lifelong fascination for the sounds of tolling bells and chant. No doubt these lodged in his memory as further emblems of the Russian past he had forever lost.

Powell points out another inspiration as well: “Rachmaninoff did have an ambivalent relationship to the Church, but he also became involved in the movement to restore chant in those years before the revolution. This was a huge movement, and it was spearheaded by figures like Alexander Kastalsky, and Rachmanoniff consulted with him when working on this score."

The Divine Liturgy sets a series of hymns and prayers (in Old Church Slavonic) to unaccompanied choir. For Western audiences, the closest analogy would be to musical settings of the sequence of prayers used ordinarily as part of the Mass. The piece's namesake, Saint John, was an Early Church Father known for his stern reforms and his eloquence. (“Chrysostom” is from the Greek for “golden-mouthed,” which also happens to be a fitting epithet for the glorious choral tradition, developed over centuries, which Rachmaninoff evokes.)

Tchaikovsky — another composer who is similarly more familiar for his secular music — actually helped spark the later revival of interest in this tradition shown by Rachmaninoff’s generation. He composed his own setting of the St. John Liturgy. But he envisioned it for both ecclesiastical and secular performance, which became controversial. Tchaikovsky’s treatment of the words displeased clerics, since it was deemed too expressively indulgent — too distracting for use in worship.

Rachmaninoff’s score met with a similar verdict: Ecclesiastical authorities objected to his “spirit of modernism” and the piece was not sanctioned for church performance. Ironically, he would later be written off as unfashionably conservative — an anachronistic holdover from late Romanticism.

The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom also fell victim to historical circumstance. “It’s tragic, because this music never got much of a hearing in Rachmaninoff’s lifetime. The Bolshevik Revolution happened not long after and quashed the revival. And after he moved to the United States, Rachmaninoff had to focus on his piano career and conducting to make a living, so he wasn’t really able to promote this piece. It ended up languishing and was only rediscovered in the middle of the last century.”

For contemporary audiences, the wonder of this music is its timelessness. Rachmaninoff adapted authentic ancient chant for a large portion of the later and better-known All-Night Vigil from 1915. But the Divine Liturgy involves newly composed music that ingeniously mimics the contemplative atmosphere of the original.

The conventions of this kind of choral music are outwardly austere (no instruments, of course, unlike the orchestra used by later composers of the Western Mass like Haydn and Beethoven). Even so, Rachmaninoff mixes the voices like a painter: from the choir he elicits a rich spectrum of textures. The music refreshes listeners, breathing and building into swelling waves that grow louder and then dim gently. Alongside music of otherworldly stasis, charming strains of folk music enter the picture.

Why, then, isn’t Rachmaninoff’s Divine Liturgy as well known as its sacred music sibling, the All-Night Vigil? According to Powell, “the Divine Liturgy has more of a call-and-response format between the choir and soloists, and you need skilled singers who can handle all the language as well: there are many more words.”

Cappella Romana’s performance will include short hymns by Tchaikovsky and Kastalsky interspersed with Rachmaninoff’s score to incorporate all the elements that would be heard in an actual liturgical service. “We inhabit a fine line between what is a concert performance and what is a liturgical celebration,” says Powell. By presenting the liturgical forms in a concert performance, audiences can get a taste of the original sacred music context. Alexander Lingas, a scholar and performer who founded Cappella Romana in 1991, will be on hand to conduct.

If you go: Cappella Romana performs Rachmaninoff’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom this Saturday, January 12, at 8 p.m. at Holy Rosary Church, 4139 42nd Ave SW at Genesee, West Seattle (with performances in Portland on January 11 and 13 as well). Call 503-236-8202 or order online. Tickets: $22-41.


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