James McQuillen


Cappella Romana review: Musical time travel

Vocal ensemble's Passion performance transports listeners to millennium-old sacred service.

Cappella Romana, Portland’s premier choir, is on a roll. They’ve been stepping up their touring schedule with high-profile engagements around the country and abroad, gave the world premiere of Maximilian Steinberg’s 1923 Passion Week last season to a glowing Wall Street Journal review by Artswatch’s Brett Campbell, and added several recordings to an already substantial discography. Their 20th CD, Good Friday in Jerusalem, was released last week and vaulted to the top spot among vocal new releases (it’s currently sold out); it also debuted this week at no. 8 on Billboard’s classical chart. So you can imagine the CD release concerts the weekend before—cases of Krug, stretch limos, the usual.

Actually, they were exactly the kind of affair you’d expect from Cappella, with solemn processions and superb performances of melismatic chant cloaked in antiquity.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Many years ago, I wrote that Alexander Lingas, Cappella’s founder and artistic director, “has a gift that most classical concert promoters would kill for: an uncanny ability to assemble large and devoted audiences for programs that the vast majority of the concert-going public would find hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull. It is difficult to imagine anyone else turning the earliest chant into le dernier cri.” (I learned years later that—a highlight of my professional life—the phrase “hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull” was printed on a t-shirt worn by Lingas himself.) That was apropos a program of Roman chant; this program reached even further back into the past, with excerpts from a 10th-century Passion service including chant from the eighth century derived from earlier compositions.

On a strictly sonic level, the concert at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was magnificent (though I’d love to have heard the matinee performance in the spacious, ringing acoustic of St. Mary’s Cathedral as well). As with last year’s concerts of Finnish Orthodox music, it was especially satisfying to hear the singers perform music they’d already worked to a fine polish for committing to disc. The ten men filled the space with dark resonance, making effortless work of melismatic unison melodies and rock-solid drones, and the pacing was measured but unflagging.

Beyond just the sound, however, was the humbling realization that this was a telling of the Passion as it would likely have sounded over a millennium ago in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem complex built around the site of the crucifixion and entombment of Christ. There are limits to sound recreation, of course, but this configuration of Cappella had impeccable credentials as a kind of Byzantine supergroup of cantor-scholars including Lingas, his City University of London colleague Spyridon Antonopoulos, frequent Cappella collaborator and composer Ioannis Arvanitis, protopsaltis Stelios Kontakiotis (first chanter of one of Greece’s leading pilgrimage sites), and John Michael Boyer, protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco. (Listening to Boyer’s voice develop its regal presence over 15 years with Cappella has been one of the more gratifying benefits of following the ensemble.)

GoodFridayInJerusalem-300x300The concert also invited a listener to delve into the expressive potential of this ancient music, a kind of artistic expression that, because the rigors and self-negating ethos of the medieval church are worlds away from the nakedly personal poetry of, say, Schubert, we have little ability to grasp. But it was impossible not to hear the laments of Mary at the foot of the cross and not be moved.

My first experience of Cappella was a performance of another setting of the Passion, Arvo Pärt’s, over 20 years ago; the journey from that to this has been profound, through many layers of musical history. I am reminded of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, where an 18th-century coffered ceiling covers a medieval basilica, which itself sits atop a 4th-century church with a former Mithraic temple in its basement. Standing there, on what was originally a republican-era private house, you can hear a trickle of water from an ancient source. Good Friday in Jerusalem went deep, and it sounded close to the spring from which poured centuries of sacred music.

James McQuillen is the classical music writer for The Oregonian.

By James McQuillen

Earlier this summer, Elaine Calder announced that she would resign as president of the Oregon Symphony, a position she has held since 2007, as of August 31. Last month, I spoke with her about her tenure with the organization and the challenges of the Great Recession. In our second conversation, we talked about the complexities of funding the orchestra and the ways in which Portland does and doesn’t represent a unique situation for a 21st-century symphony president.



The balcony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall/Courtesy Wikimedia

By James McQuillen

Editor’s note: This is the transcription of James McQuillen’s podcast interview with outgoing Oregon Symphony president Elaine Calder. First of two parts.

Earlier this month, Elaine Calder announced that she would resign as president of the Oregon Symphony, a position she has held since 2007. During her tenure, the symphony has weathered significant financial crises on its way to the kind of artistic and organizational success that proven elusive for many struggling American orchestras. In this, the first part of a two-part conversation, she talks about the state of the symphony when she took over, the way things stand now, and the roles of music director Carlos Kalmar, the administration and the musicians in keeping one of Oregon’s leading cultural institutions on an even keel.

James McQuillen: Elaine Calder, thank you for taking the time to chat. We’re chatting, obviously, because you’ve announced that you are leaving the Oregon Symphony; you’ve been with the symphony since 2006, first as a consultant, I understand, and then the next year formally—

Elaine Calder: President from July 2007.

I was wondering if you could describe first what you saw as the state of the organization when you were applying for the job, and your sense of what your job was when you took the job.

I remember leaving a meeting of the search committee fairly late in the process—I came down here several times; they were really careful, they did a good search. I remember leaving a meeting fairly late in the process and saying to somebody, “It looks like you need to raise three million dollars by November.” I can’t really remember why that was the number, or what terrible thing was going to happen in November if the orchestra didn’t raise three million by November—and it didn’t, and nothing terrible happened. So I guess I was wrong, but I got sort of back, “Yes, yes, you know, we’re going to, we understand.”

The August before I got officially hired—I think I was hired in September—there were massive layoffs in the office. Ten people, ten full-time people, were let go, including Carrie Kikel, who had been here for a long time doing PR and was really liked by the journalism community. And the staff were told they were now going to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, and they were no longer going to get paid parking. And we were going to shut down our phone room, which we’ve since reinstated [using] outsourced telemarketers, because that was going to save money and we wouldn’t have to contribute to health insurance and all the rest. So I knew it was going to be a pretty demoralized staff.

When did I first hear the orchestra? It must have been in September. That really excited me. Even then—I say, as though six years ago they were nothing—they were really good. I was really impressed at what they were doing, and that matters to me. I had spent a long time talking with Carlos in Chicago at some point in the summer, and I really liked what he was doing. So I thought, the art is great, but I’m going to walk into a demoralized group of people and a board that was really anxious for change, and were coming up with any number of ways in which we could change, not all of which were necessarily feasible, just because of the way our business works. I suppose you could do anything, but there are things you’d better not try.

So I knew it was going to be shaky, I knew it was going to be hard. But—I said to the staff this morning, either it’s my original personality, or my personality has been formed because this is what I’ve done all my working life, but I work best when I’m struggling. That’s what I’ve done. So I wasn’t terribly worried about it. It actually got much worse later on, much worse.


Elaine Calder

In Part One of a two-part interview, ArtsWatch classical music contributor James McQuillen talks to Elaine Calder, the outgoing president of the Oregon Symphony, about the struggling symphony she found when first arrived six years ago, how it’s changed during her tenure and how Carlos Kalmar, management and the musicians worked together to change things.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives