On Friday, October 17th at St. Mary's Cathedral, Portland's renowned Cappella Romana delivered a magnificent performance of sacred music from the Ukrainian tradition. On a balmy mid-autumn evening, they sang a concert entitled "The Heart of Kiev" under the direction of a long-time collaborator: guest conductor and Slavic music expert Mark Bailey, who sits on the faculty at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in New York. Bailey noted that he grew up in the Ukrainian church, so his direction had a distinct feeling of authenticity and unfeigned reverence that added meaning to Cappella Romana's expert display.
The concert began with several examples of Kievan chant, which is at once simpler and more folksy than the more familiar (to us) Gregorian chant, or the Znamenny chant of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Cappella Romana has an amazing ability to sing pure, synchronized unisons, a must for a group working in this field. At times the tenors and basses sang alone, and at others men and women sang together, the multitude of voices sounding like one instrument with complex, multi-colored timbres throughout.
From there on they sang a series of works that described a chronological progression in Ukrainian music from the medieval chant through the early years of the 19th century. In "Praise the Name of the Lord" by Nikolai Diletsky (c. 1630-1680), the choir followed Bailey's detailed, expressive direction with rapt focus. This work was difficult and frenetic, requiring almost instantaneous changes in pacing and mood, and Cappella Romana never lost concentration for a second. The sure-footed Bailey shepherded the singers through these myriad changes, resulting in an extremely tight performance: no phrase, short or long, no matter the dynamic, ever wanted for direction, intensity or shape, The first half finished with works by Maksim Berezovsky (1745-1777) and Artemy Vedel (1767-1808,) both of whom had imported Italian influences into the Ukrainian sacred tradition.
The entire second half was devoted to music by Dimitry Bortniansky (1751-1825.) In some respects this moved away from the denser, Baroque-style polyphony of the earlier works. It required different techniques from the choir, and they responded accordingly. All through the evening they ably articulated the difficult consonants and broad, rich vowels of Slavonic diction, but in the heart-achingly sweet lullaby "How Glorious," they sounded like one solitary living creature, the expansion and contraction of the music coming as naturally as breath. There are few things more exciting in music than to hear such long, sustained pianos sung with such subtlety and unity. This choir did everything right from a technical standpoint: breath support, entrances, exits, blending. All the pieces of the puzzle were there.
The bass section especially was rich and sonorous. Slavic choirs are known for the strength and depth of their basses, and the Cappella Romana certainly lived up to this tradition. Their mastery of the craft of singing ancient sacred music is brilliantly obvious, and Mark Bailey's deeply informed leadership brought out the best that this amazing group has to offer. It is a wonderful gift to experience musicianship at this level: a keen, thorough understanding of what the music is trying to say, coupled with the ability to articulate that vision precisely. That is exactly what Mark Bailey and the Cappella Romana did Friday night. They will sing this concert again tonight, Saturday the 18th, at the Town Hall in Seattle, WA.