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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 02
Cappella Romana brings Baroque Christmas cheer
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Cappella Romana brings Baroque Christmas cheer

by Adam Ross - Special to the SGN

Baroque Christmas in Russia and Ukraine
January 8
Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church


By the second week of January in most U.S. households, the Christmas decorations have been long taken down and forlorn fir trees sit by the curb waiting their fates in compost heaps. So, while it may initially seem unusual to be presenting a concert of Christmas music well after New Year's Day, we have to remember that the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7. The Portland-based a cappella ensemble Cappella Romana thus presented their concert of Baroque era Orthodox choral music for Christmas in Portland on that very date, with its encore performance here in Seattle one day later.

The singers of Cappella Romana must be congratulated for their consummate blend, tuning, and ensemble. They offered a nearly flawless performance of a wide range of liturgical Christmas music from Russia and Ukraine. The opening pieces - examples of two- and three-part settings of harmonized chants from the Znamenny repertoire - were alternately austere and rich-sounding in equal measure. In particular, the first two-voice piece, sung by a mezzo and a high-tenor, was beautifully tuned and blended. These pieces were followed by a suite of anonymous chants which reflected a more joyful 'modern' Baroque tonality.

Cappella Romana did well to vary the scoring of the pieces, with ensembles for high voices (sung by the sopranos and altos of the ensemble) juxtaposed with works for men's voices only. Far from sounding dry or academic, the pieces often delighted with unexpected touches - the setting of 'Tsaritse Moya Preblagaya' ('My Queen Most Beloved,' a hymn to the Virgin Mary), for example, featured some embellished flourishes that sounded reminiscent of embellishments in French Baroque music. The first half of the program ended with an impressive 12-part motet by Vasily Titov - its kaleidoscopic shifts of various combinations of voices, culminating in massive full sections for the whole ensemble, echoed another more renowned Baroque masterpiece, Domenico Scarlatti's 10-part 'Stabat Mater.'

The second half of the concert featured several pieces by late-Baroque Ukrainian composer Dmitri Bortniansky, who juxtaposed familiar motifs from his Italian training with unusual effects not usually heard in Baroque music of the 'West.' His Marian piece, 'Dostoyno Yest,' featured melting harmonies sung with perfect balance and tenderness by the chorus. However, the most unorthodox (pun intended!) work of the evening belonged to 'Kto Yest Sei Tsar Slavi?' ('Who is the King of Glory?') by Artemy Vedel. Though the text was familiar to holiday concert-goers, this piece sounded nothing like the Handel Messiah chestnut, and instead mimicked effects found in Italian opera choruses, culminating in the end with a hair-raising soprano solo. With the dazzling ornamentation from the soloist, it sounded like a cross between mock-Puccini and the high soprano solo from the Allegri 'Miserere'! At the end of the program, the chorus performed the Vedel work again as a true 'encore,' with the soloist displaying her virtuosity with new ornamentation the second time around.

Kudos must be given to guest conductor Mark Bailey, who showed his obvious love for these pieces in his energetic and engaging conducting. Ultimately, however, the singers of the ensemble must be congratulated for their expert, dedicated performances. Though Cappella Romana does not possess the sheer heft of Russian choruses performing this music, their tuning and sense of ensemble would be not be easily matched by eastern European ensembles, and it is rare indeed to hear such unusual music performed in such skilled performances. Bravi!

Reviewer Adam Ross can be reached at adamlouisross@gmail.com.

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