Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cappella Romana sings “Byzantium in Rome”

By guest reviewer Aaron Berenbach

The performance of Cappella Romana’s “Byzantium in Rome” was an intriguing glimpse into the history of sacred music at a point where civilizations from the Greek East and Latin West were meeting and combining. The cultural and political context of the Greek peninsula reflected the competing influences of not only east and west, but also of the encroaching Arab influence spreading its way through that portion of the world. Celebrating the millennial anniversary of the founding of the Abbey of Grottaferrata, Friday’s concert emphasized the differing aspects of that monastery’s musical heritage as well as its founder, St. Neilos the New.

Led by scholar, performer, and artistic director, Dr. Alexander Lingas, Cappella Romana presented the audience with the medieval forbears of the modern chant repertory heard today in Greek Orthodox churches. An act of both artistry and interpretation, the performance as a whole can be considered a great success.

In the warm confines of St. Mary’s cathedral, with the evening light diffusing through the stain glass windows, the haunting melodies and harmonies of Cappella Romana’s nine current performers filled the air with a rich, enveloping sound, prompting a mood both contemplative and reverent. As the first few pieces ended, the audience was reluctant to even applaud, afraid to break the spell woven by a combination of deep, resonant drone sounds overlaid with sweeping melismas.

Anyone familiar with the sacred musics of the religions that sprang from the Mediterranean region would have recognized elements in Friday night’s performance. This music came from the synthesis between the Palestinian Christian cycle of prayer and that of Constantinople. (FYI: Both were in place before Islam even existed - so there was no Islamic influence.) The low, slowly changing notes of the bass singers combined beautifully with the cantillations of the melody putting this reviewer in mind of both the call to prayer heard from Islamic Mosques as well as the voice of the Cantor at a Jewish synagogue. A concert such as this does much to remind one of the shared cultural and musical history that ties together much of the modern world.

The performers themselves seemed personally connected to the music, often closing their eyes and smiling to relish a particularly pleasing bit of harmony. At times they seemed to almost forget themselves as the nine voices wove together into one large sound, filling the cathedral with the spiritual music of another age. The audience too was caught in the wash of resonance, forgetting momentarily the hot, still air and the crowded presence of the other attendees. It seemed as if the first half of the concert passed in a moment, leaving a hushed silence in it’s wake, which quickly gave way to appreciative applause. The second half, featuring the music of the feast of the Pentecost, passed equally quickly, capturing the same joyful yet deliberative character.

The history of sacred music is a long tale full of interesting stories and asides. Presented in such an alluring and well-performed manner, the snippet of history that is offered for consideration by “Byzantium in Rome” is well worth exploration. Looking back to a time where monks devoted their entire lives to study and worship, much beauty can be found in the fruits of their labor. Regardless of religious intent, the effort to express the sacred through the human voice is effectively and tastefully communicated through the works of Cappella Romana.


Aaron Berenbach is studying music composition with Bob Priest at Marylhurst University and pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter/composer/teacher.

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