Monday, November 5, 2007

Cappella Romana's recent concert packs them in Portland but not in Seattle

One of Portland most unique, top tier groups, is Cappella Romana, a vocal ensemble that specializes in performing music from Byzantium. More specifically, they sing the traditional liturgical music of the Greek Orthodox Church, developed over a long period of time from the beginnings of the Byzantine Empire in 330 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Cappella Romana has released a number of recordings of this music, have performed at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and at the Getty Museum in LA. They have developed a large devoted audience in Portland that typically fills St. Mary's Cathedral (which can hold well over 600 people) to the brim. Cappella Romana's first performance of the season on Friday evening at St. Mary's was almost standing room only. But their concert at Town Hall Seattle looked as if it had an audience of 150. That was the performance that I attended, and it was worthy of a larger audience despite several acoustical challenges that this venue poses.

The first half of Cappella Romana's program consisted of five chants (two of which were from Medieval Germany) that spanned centuries from approximately 600 to 1360. Baritone John Boyer did and excellent job in singing the leading the chants, and the five men (led by artistic director Alexander Lingas) gave a good unified sound. The four women in the ensemble had a harder time with the chants -- a couple of disagreements in intonation in St. Hildegard of Bingen's "O viridissima virga" and "Alleluia O virga mediatrix."

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to a World Premiere of Robert Kyr's "A Time for Life," a long work of that ponders our relationship to the environment with texts drawn from the Bible and from Native American songs and prayers. The singers were accompanied by two vielles (a predecessor of the violin) and a viola da gamba (an early form of the cello

Kyr wrote this piece extremely well. The music has immediacy, and it moves through the texts at an even pace. Kyr could have easily beaten us over the head with the serious nature of the texts, such as "We defile your oceans, Harming and killing sea life. We forget who we are." But the music and singing never bogs down and the piece ends on a glorious note of hope.

Unfortunately, the acoustics at Town Hall Seattle are not advantageous to an eight member vocal ensemble. Instead of the warm, lush sound that Cappella Romana gets at St Mary's, we heard a clear yet sterile sound at Town Hall Seattle. The singers had to work very hard to fill the space with sound and their voices sometimes strained. In particular, this marred the end of "A Time for Life" when everyone had to sing at full throttle.

Some of the problem at Town Hall Seattle is certainly due to the carpet that runs throughout much of the space. Carpet really sucks up sound waves. Also, there wasn't any reverberation at all. A little reverberation would have helped.

If the voices of Cappella Romana had been doubled or tripled, then I think it could made a much better concert and wouldn't have taxed the singers nearly as much. They return to Town Hall Seattle for their next concert on January 12th. But if you want the full effect of this group, then you should come to Portland and hear them on January 11th at St Mary's.

PS: I'll be reworking some of these thoughts in a review that I am writing for on Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra for and upcoming issue of The American Record Guide.

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