Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chanters of St. Panteleimon transport Cappella Romana Audience

Cappella Romana welcomed some very special guests to St. Mary's Cathedral on the evening of Saturday, May 7th. Hailing from the Church of St. Panteleimon in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, the four men who sang for the gathered crowd demonstrated unique and advanced styles and techniques that must surely be of the utmost rarity in this part of the world.

The first half of the program consisted of sacred works. They took the stage dressed in simple white robes with red trim, and began with Shen khar venakhi (You are a vineyard), a hymn to the Theotokos that was breathtaking in its hushed reverence. It began with the most delicate intonation imaginable, barely heard yet incredibly powerful. A pure, almost boy-soprano tone floated gently above ethereal drones that continued quietly after each cadence, sustaining the forward momentum as the chant paused. A different setting of the text followed later, radically different with startling, almost modern sounding harmonies.

A number of chants filled the first half. An interesting technique was the crescendi, so gradual and subtle that they were scarcely perceived at first and took time to manifest themselves to the listener. Many of the vowels were sung through lips all but closed, and the aura was one of breathless mystery--everything was a masterful economy of diction, breath and phrasing.

The hymn K'riste aghdga (Christ is risen) exploded like dynamite from the curtain of stillness that had been drawn over the cathedral since the first notes were intoned. Using a throaty technique more akin to the style found in Georgian folk song, the chanters filled St. Mary's with deep, reverberating power. The final sacred selection, Up'alo ieso (The Jesus Prayer) featured the tenor rising above the consonant, halo-like drone chords in the most plaintive supplication, crying for mercy across years uncounted and miles unnumbered. (Click the link to hear this work at Cappella Romana's website.)

The folk selections of the second half were electrifying. The switch to bold black riding attire, replete with high leather boots, long kilts and bejeweled short swords at the belt of every man, left no doubt that the second half would be very different from the first. For all the restrained, contemplative quietude of the first half, the second was full of boisterous, raw energy.

The singers routinely shifted positions as they moved in and out of bass and treble roles. The myriad of styles and techniques was astonishing; even within the space of one song the variation of structures and motives left one never sure what was to come next. From funereal chants to wild, ululating yodels, exotic counterpoint and complex ornamentation, restrained shouting, clapping and accompaniment by a three-stringed folk instrument that looked like a diamond-shaped balalaika, the songs told stories of hunting and courting, bravery and death, love, weddings and even wrestling.

Daigvianes was a story about a knight "hiding among sheep, and in deliberation" according to the program. About what he is contemplating we are never sure (unless one speaks Georgian I suppose) but that knowledge could not have increased the joy in listening to this song. In this lengthy work the deft tenor told a sad tale above a bed of sound that never once ceased, with the three drones all alternating breathing so the tone never faded and a slow, barely perceptible pulse animated the drone.

Listening to songs like these that bare the soul of peoples and cultures from faraway lands is a rare treasure. The ability of Cappella Romana to bring such distinct, master stylists all the way across the world is to be lauded, and as such CR's contribution to live performances of both early music and world music in Portland cannot be overstated.

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