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Cappella Romana brings lost music to life
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Cappella Romana brings lost music to life

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Cappella Romana
February 13
St. Demetrios
Greek Orthodox Church


Not everyone wants to attend a concert consisting entirely of unfamiliar music, but sometimes such a concert can bring discoveries of musical treasures that leave you wondering, "Where has this music been all my life?" This was certainly the case on February 13 at Seattle's St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in the latest visit by the Portland group Cappella Romana. Choosing this event over watching the Olympics, I felt greatly rewarded. (Tivo to the rescue here.)

The first delight was the "Requiem" ("Opelo") by Stevan Hristic (HRIS-titch) (1885-1958). This utterly accessible, warmly embracing music played around with refreshing "modern" harmonies, but nearly always ended each section with a grounding tonic sonority. The "Requiem" consisted of relatively short parts, most often avoiding polyphony in music that flowed smoothly in transparent harmonies. Bass lines of single-note steps descending or ascending underscored the higher voices, who often played with beautiful juxtaposition of two adjacent notes, giving an open, airy feeling that kept this solemn music from becoming heavy.

Cappella Romana sings with little or no vibrato, thus aiding the transparent clarity and gorgeous harmonies of this music to no end. This almost straight-tone approach somehow completely avoids sounding astringent or annoying (unlike some "early music" singers), but it leaves them naked with no place to hide. Their voices are so perfectly produced and so expertly blended, however, that this naked quality is a distinct plus instead of a problem.

This time the group consisted of 10 men and eight women, singing as usual without accompaniment and directed by guest director Rev. Dr. Ivan Moody. These superb singers responded effortlessly to his every gesture, often effecting sweeping changes in dynamics that gave the music life and expression. One did not need to follow the Serbian texts in the program to be moved. Although the "Requiem" avoided the dramatic extremes of the Latin requiems of Verdi or Berlioz, it gave no opportunity to become bored. One regrets that this work is not among the many CDs produced by Cappella Romana.

The works after intermission were hardly less satisfying. They were by unfamiliar composers that included Teodosije of Hilandar (13th-14th centuries), Aleksandra Vrebalov (b. 1970), Rajko Maksimovic (b. 1935), Stevan Mokranjac (1856-1914), and this evening's conductor, Ivan Moody (b. 1964). Note the range from early music to contemporary, including a woman composer!

The first of two works by Maksimovic was for female voices only, and included a mezzo-soprano soloist. It was interesting for several reasons beyond its obvious beauty. First of all, the women all sang with straight tone (no vibrato), while the soloist employed a perfectly normal vibrato. Oddly enough, this did not clash, but rather served to clarify the differences between solo and accompanying sounds. Second, the basically tonal work explored atonal excursions, adding interest and a sense of the unexpected. Thirdly, sudden changes in dynamics added a dramatic effect to this work, entitled "Militsa's Weeping."

Some use of a bass-line drone appeared both in the early work by Teodosije of Hilandar and in the contemporary "Seven Hymns to Saint Sava" by conductor Ivan Moody. (If you love really rich, warm bass voices, miss this group at your peril!) Indeed, Cappella Romana often performs modern works that have many characteristics in common with early, and especially early Greek Orthodox vocal music. It is rumored that the group is talking with contemporary composer Arvo Pärt about possibly composing a work for them. A recent concert of Pärt's works by Cappella Romana revealed that this was a marriage made in heaven.

The next concert presented by Cappella Romana in Seattle will be at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 7, and will feature the Yale Russian Chorus. Info at www.cappellaromana.org.

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

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