Cappella Romana's exciting, unfamiliar music
 

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posted Friday, November 13, 2009 - Volume 37 Issue 46

Cappella Romana's exciting, unfamiliar music
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Cappella Romana
November 6
St. Demetrios
Greek Orthodox Church


I may know next to nothing about the music we heard at this concert, but I do know how to listen. And to anyone truly listening, the sounds we heard could not fail to fascinate and perhaps entrance.

A very intelligent design divided the evening into two very different parts. The first half, entitled "Greeks and Latins in the Eastern Mediterranean," might just as well have been called "Conflict!" There was conflict between cults, cultures, and musical rules. Essentially, the Crusades left the Eastern Mediterranean in a mess. East Roman (Byzantine) Empire, Western colonies, and Islamic states (both Arab and Turkish) gradually sorted things out in a way that remains, to this day, full of conflict.

To these ears, the music of the first half mirrored those conflicts both in the startling variety of styles and in the way each probed the possibilities of just how a musical scale should sound. "Well-tempered" tuning had not yet conquered the field. We heard all sorts of notes that, to a later Western ear, were just plain "wrong!" Micro-tones and harmonies that seemed bizarre kept jolting me out my musical comfort zone, thus grabbing my attention and keeping my ears alert. The absolute accuracy of the singers (and the excellent acoustics at St. Demetrios) made these weird sounds perfectly clear and a source of delight. I found that closing my eyes also helped me surrender my habitual expectations and instead actually listen without censoring.

This was vocal music, set to mostly sacred texts. Obviously, I ignored the texts. Paradoxically, I was wowed by the expression of the vocal lines. The "strange" notes often came from vocal inflections preceding notes, or elaborating notes with slight dips in pitch. These gave the lines an almost speaking ("sprechstimme") quality. (Sprechstimme wasn't used as a technique until the turn of the 20th century!)

Throughout the evening, the group of 10 singers (eight men and two women) changed their physical arrangement as well as the number of people singing, thus adding more variety in textures and dynamics. The quality of singing could hardly have been more impressive.

The first piece, from the Cypriot 15th century, had the bass line move slowly in almost a drone while the higher voices chimed in, as though from another world, with rather bird-like short phrases that were full of movement and inflection. It sounded at first rather chaotic but became rather freeing and refreshing, once one let go of later Western musical rules and expectations. This early polyphony had much to say to the 21st century ear.

The more familiar sounds of the second half, entitled "Re-imagining Ancient Music," came almost as a let-down after the adventures of the opening series. While chromaticisms were often employed, the ancient scales were less used, and harmonies and styles of polyphony became more regimented. As performed by Cappella Romana, it was all lovely and beautiful, but less exciting.

Almost none of the composers in this program were familiar to me, except the late, great Anonymous! (Matthew Blastares, Guillaume Dufay, Manuel Gazes the Lampadarios, Franghiskos Leontaritis, Antoine Busnoys, Claude le Jeune, and Nicola Vicentino greatly outnumbered the sole familiar name of Orlande de Lassus.) I noticed only one other regular Seattle reviewer in the audience. Perhaps most main-line reviewers feel that their professionalism doesn't allow them to review music with which they are not familiar. But a superb group like Cappella Romana deserves more notice than they get. I, for one, found no difficulty in appreciating, however superficially, the excellence of their singing and the joy of discovery in their scholarly yet exciting program.

Cappella Roman has released 13 CDs. They are taking this program to Princeton, Washington, DC, Yale, and New York, as well as their hometown of Portland, OR. Their next performance in Seattle will be Saturday, February 13, at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. See www.cappellaromana.org for details and tickets.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu



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