Cappella Romana review: Choral conundrum

Portland choir's revelatory performance of Rautavaara's "All Night Vigil" shows a neglected masterpiece ripe for rediscovery


The question “How long is an All Night Vigil” sounds a bit like a “stupid answers” category on Jeopardy. But if you are new to the choral manifestation of the ANV, you will be happy to know that short, general consumption concert versions are available for such works. Such was the case with the All Night Vigil (Vigilia) of contemporary Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara, performed by Cappella Romana at Portland’s St. Mary Cathedral this past Saturday. We congregated with the expectation of the ancient Byzantine chant, the surround sound profundity, basso and otherwise, and the potential for an evening of Eastern Orthodox transmogrification. We also experienced a performance that shows why this music created forty years ago deserves wider attention.

Cappella Romana sang Rautavaara’s “Vigilia” in Portland.

For Rautavaara, the 1970s was a creative decade. Then in his forties, he was appointed his country’s first ever Artist Professor. His declamatory (spoken) choral work, Ludus Verbalis (1960) was making the rounds in American choirs. He was distancing himself musically from his neo-classical works of the 1950s, the decade in which he studied at Juilliard with Vincent Persichetti and began his teaching at the Sibelius Academy. He completed his foray into serialism and quasi film-score romanticism of the ‘60s and alighted upon his own voice – the Modernist, eclectic voice – which would be his foundation for the next three decades. (See Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch preview for more details on Rautavaara’s career.) The All Night Vigil (1971-72) was written at the beginning of this new Rautavaara choral voice. It is this voice which is the bliss of the work – and the conundrum.

There are traditional elements to the work, including long-breathed chants, and oblique Byzantine modality, endless verses separated by drawn out “Amens” and the strict adherence to the text.

But Rautavaara was fulfilling the commission, by the Helsinki Festival and the Orthodox Church of Finland, which requested something brand spanking new. They got it.

Atmospheric Approach

We’re first struck with many of the composer’s signatures of the time. Vigilia is like a sensory overload of vocal effects: speaking, whooshing, slow motion scoopes, drones. Harmonically we hear tone clusters, microtonal scales, quartal harmonies and lines moving in parallel seconds. John Williams-like added 7th chords explode like supernovas at ends of movements.

Periodically, a pure major triad emerges at a cadence, or a priestly intoning begins a passage, or a “Hosanna” is repeated enough times, and things begin to sound familiar.

There is a beauty, a lushness that entices the listener but also unsettling twists and turns that do not allow for an extended period of sonic serenity. And then there is the lack of melody.

Einojuhani Rautavaara

“Without any doubt, the most shocking decision was to leave out the old Orthodox melodies and compose new ones,” explains Orthodox Church member, music professor and researcher Tarja von Creutlein.*

Rautavaara is described as a mystic and his mature works reflect this in his Symphony #7, Angel of Light. Likewise, in the Vigil he creates an environment, an atmosphere and while chords and linear harmonies are fickle, the atmosphere remains and that is the key to the audience appreciation of the piece.

As if the aural positioning system (APS) has lost its signal, the ear searches for the familiar route. When the familiar is not available, the brain begins to reroute, to relax and to allow the journey to continue. Fortunately, handing over control of the journey to Cappella Romana guarantees a good ride.

Calamity Averted

The conductor, the production and the performance forces. A hiccup in any one of those factors can sabotage a program. Well, there was not just a hiccup, there was a gastrointestinal calamity.

The contracted conductor, Timo Nuoranne, from Helsinki, was unable to fly to the US because of visa issues. (Oh, the timeliness of this topic!) Each day of the rehearsal week John Michael Boyer, a regular Cappella singer and learned scholar and performer of Eastern Orthodox literature, stepped up to prepare the choir for Nuoranne until the visa vigil came to naught. And that is where the calamity turned to success.

Boyer owned the podium. Gracious, fluid, and clear, he and the choir made a strong impression. He made it seem like the constantly changing meters and asymmetrical phrasing were a walk in the park. He exhibited confidence and enabled confidence in the singers.

The singers were 23 strong for this concert series and enlivened the piece from start to finish. Finnish. Uff dah. The Finno-Hungaric strain is one of the few variants on the continent that is not Indo-European, with much fewer romantic language handles to grab on to. Not the easiest to surmount.

Rautavaara seems to have envisioned his Vigil to be performed in liturgical and concert settings. In 1996 it was finally published for concert, with an English translation. Thankfully, Cappella Romana tackled the Finnish, and the words of the Feast of St. John the Baptist were sung as Rautavaara phrased them.

Throughout, a bevy of beautiful solos – some depicting the deacons or priests (baritone Mark Powell and tenor Chris Engbretson) and some in different contexts, sung by varied members of the choir: Arwen Myers, David Hendrix, Sue Hale, Aaron Cain, Mel Downie Robinson, Nicholas Ertsgaard and Catherine van der Salm.

These singers, whether intuitively or by intent, navigated Rautavaara’s quirky harmonic miasma, which requires a held note to be identified as the third of the chord one moment, to the fifth the next, then the tonic, back to the third and so forth as the intervals around it change. This sophisticated writing requires ‘just’ intonation, or the “what is my purpose in this triad right now” concept for the singer. It is like the defensive line of the Atlanta Falcons being told “just change your position depending on how the New England Patriots offensive line sets up.” Daunting.

Sweet and Low down

For this concert, Cappella Romana brought in one solo ringer, a singer whose basso

Singer Glenn Miller.

profundo voice and musical artistry is coveted worldwide. Guest choral basso? In the opera world, guest sopranos and tenors are glorified, but guest basses in the choral world (or guest anyones) … not so much.

But Glenn Miller (no, not that Glenn Miller) is different. Sought after by choral groups far and wide for his contrabass-like low register, and first class musicianship, he has sung some dozen or more performances – and recordings – of the Rachmaninoff Vespers alone, over the past decade.  Renowned choral conductor Shaw hired him often to fill in the low end, and that’s where I first knew him. He’s also sung with Eric Erickson, Conspirare, and the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, among other stellar professional choral groups and has recorded on several labels. (For a kick in the low Bb, YouTube “Glenn Miller Basso recital.”) His day job is organist and choir director at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church, outside Detroit.  When we got reacquainted at a Portland cafe before his performance with Cappella Romana, Miller told me has recently helped to form a new group, Audivi, with Jeff Daumer of Yale; they’ve released a new disc, The Stolen Child by Scott Perkins. He is so modest and self-deprecating, you wouldn’t know his capabilities, except his vocal quality is that of the voice of God.

Rautavaara, who used Prokofiev’s film score to Ivan the Terrible as one inspiration for this Vigil, wrote a low C and several low Ds into the solos in the score. The sound from Mr. Miller seems to begin in the solar plexus rather than the throat, such is his resonance. It is indeed profound.

Ripe for Rediscovery

Rautavaara’s is one of a handful of All Night Vigils. Two earlier works might be well-known to fans of pulling the “all-nighter,” Orthodox style. Peter Tchaikovsky’s Vigil (1881-82) was the first time Russian (Slavic) chant was used in a major liturgical undertaking. The 17 movements are drawn from the text of the Feast of St. John.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, who revered the Tchaikovsky composition, used (by church dictates) the proper chants, but deviated from Tchaikovsky’s hymn-like homophonic structure, resulting in some of the most beloved church and/or concert choral music ever composed. It was well known to Portland audiences as the yearly holiday offering by the Oregon Repertory Singers. Portland Symphonic Choir performed the Rachmaninoff this past fall. And now, Capella Romana brings us the Rautavaara, which is much less known and performed.

We are discovering anew that there is fact, there is opinion and there is George Orwell’s take on both. In the artistic world there is room for lots of opinion. The facts about the Rautavaara Vigil are that it was controversial in 1971. And that a premiere of the work was claimed in New York City only as recently as 2014 and in all of California in 2015. It has been recorded for release only a few times.

What this says about the work, however, is up for opinion. From a dystopian viewpoint some might say the work is out of reach musically – not so for the caliber of Cappella Romana. Some might say the work is too modern to be a genuine liturgical work. But Rautavaara planned for that possibility when he revamped it in 1996.

Perhaps it is poised and ready to be discovered anew, ready to be declared a rare and gifted addition to the choral/liturgical canon – that is a possibility. Cappella Romana and its wonderful performance may only be the beginning.

*Side note: this quote and other specifics are gleaned from Elroy Duane Friesen’s very readable 2010 doctoral dissertation, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia, from Cathedral to Concert Hall (University of Illinois Urbana).

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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One Response.

  1. Mark Powell says:

    The Esoterics in Seattle, directed by Eric Banks, gave what we believe was the US premiere of Rautavaara’s Vigilia in March, 2006.

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