Cappella Romana: Greece is the Word

Portland choir sings sacred music by Greek composers ancient and modern

Cappella Romana performed at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Cappella Romana performed at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.


Suddenly,  just over my right shoulder,  the pure, radiant tones of the opening Processional Introit burst forth as Cappella Romana advanced up the center aisle of Portland’s Holy  Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral from the back, two by two. For the next two hours last Sunday afternoon, I thought of nothing but music. No plans, no regrets, no future, no past, and definitely no human vocal frailty — the group gave me no opportunity — just music.

The unaccompanied chant of the Introit gave way to a number of works from the early years of the Eastern church in which a florid upper part was supported by sustained low tones, sometimes paralleled at the octave and even the fifth, a sound vaguely reminiscent of bagpipes. The basses especially shone up from the depths. In one work, a prologue to the Passion hymn “Already the Pen,” two soloists paced each other at the fifth , adopting a slightly more nasal tone than is usual in music from farther to the West. In others, an ornament which, in a Western European classical context, might be frowned upon as an indecisive alternation between minor and major took me away to visits of ancient artifacts, where I have pondered the remove of their cultural context from my own. I was struck by these differences from the tradition I grew up in, but the performance overall was of such single-minded commitment that nothing sounded outlandish.

The last two works before intermission brought this difference into sharp relief. A motet setting of Psalm 119 by the 16th century Greek-Italian composer Franghiskos Leontaritis, who lived a fairly cosmopolitan life, spun out the smooth and intricate counterpoint he learned well from the Western European Renaissance masters Willaert and Lassus. In contrast, several excerpts of liturgical music by the slightly later and more enigmatic Cretan composer Parthenios Sgoutas mostly paralleled all voices in simple harmonies — which nonetheless sensitively supported the top voice.

The printed program’s excellence matched the performance’s, including all translations of the texts being sung, effective but non intrusive advertising, and artistic director Alexander Lingas’s eminently readable and informative notes.

From Constantinople to California

The second half of the concert provided an equally various sampler of Greek Orthodox music from the most recent 100 years. Many of the works demonstrated their composers’ firm grounding in the Western European traditions, but many also showed that the Eastern traditions are still being nurtured. The range was all the more interesting because five of the six composers represented were born in the same decade, 1922 to 1932, and mostly educated in California. A Communion Verse for Sundays by the one younger composer, Steven Cardiasmenos (born in 1958), had a high concentration of Western chromaticism — west of Broadway that is — and seemed out of place, even saccharine by comparison. However, these slippery harmonies are not easy to sing, and the performers demonstrated their complete mastery here, just as in the rest of the concert.

Greek-American composers Theodore Bogdanos and Tikey Zes anchored the Western end, and at their best showed a fluid grace and build which must surely have an awe-inspiring effect in the context of a worship service. Likewise, “O joyful light”, set by Peter Michaelides, built to a profoundly moving conclusion, tinged with the sadness which is an inescapable part of the contemplation of Jesus by the devout, no matter how much glory he is radiating.

Greek composer Michael Adamis, who died earlier this year, anchored the Eastern end. In a generous sampling of his works including the musically ambitious “Rejoice Thessaloniki,” based on a ninth-century hymn, many of the sounds, ornaments and devices heard in the first half returned in more opulent surroundings, yet it was an opulence like that of the Cathedral venue — related to, but clearly distinct from the other side of Europe.

The most satisfying work on the program was written by the oldest of the five. There were moments of greater intensity in other works, but the seminal Greek-American composer Frank Desby seems to have possessed a wider ranging sonic imagination. In his “Kyrie Eleison (fortyfold),” relentless repetition of a rhythmic pattern, modal and tonal counterpoint, and a fine sense of architecture seamlessly integrate East and West. In a couple of utterly entrancing passages, Desby’s music even follows the trail of parallel voicing  to a brief turn in the land of polytonality, as some of the voices seem to go off in their own key, blissfully heedless of the others. For me these were like breaths of lazy days in California sunshine, palm trees and orange groves, sapphire waters and rainbow sunsets, long before the advent of smog and sprawl. As I walked out into the Oregon sunshine afterward — and I mean it, I’m not speaking in Oregonian code for rain here — it was the memory and message of divine love in this work which kept on singing inside me, thanks in no small part to Cappella Romana’s devoted performance.

Frequent ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer with a keen interest in choral music, especially choral music which crosses boundaries into new lands of beauty and expressiveness.

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