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May 19, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 20
 
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Cappella Romana were mesmerizing
Cappella Romana were mesmerizing
"...[A]float in the vibrations of an ancient world..."

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

As I'm settling my weary bones onto the hard wooden benches of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in West Seattle, I'm thinking, "And the reason we decided to come to this concert was&?" And during the long, highly repetitive opening work (by Manuel Chrysaphes the Lampadarios fl. 1440-63), I'm a little under excited to say the least.

Until& Until I realize that I have become entranced. In spite of not understanding a single word being sung, in spite of not caring to understand (Organized religion is repulsive to me.), in spite of my gardening-sore body, I am somehow afloat in the vibrations of an ancient world totally foreign to my corporal or spiritual experience. A "Byzantine Divine Liturgy" has taken me away from my aches to an exotic, mystical realm.

This concert by Cappella Romana (based in Portland, OR, repeating each Portland concert in West Seattle) was greatly aided by the acoustics of Holy Rosary, a large Italianesque church in which all their concerts next season will be given. A single singer could generate an astoundingly big sound. No carpeting (or seat cushions) absorbed any sonic energy. Thus, this group of seven men and two women swamped us in loud singing. Most the singers had strong, rich voices of considerable range. They sang with no vibrato but often with eastern ornamentations. Many of the pieces used a steady bass "drone" note that changed pitch only occasionally if at all. Everything was at least medium loud, with no change in dynamics except a rare rise to forte.

So, what made it all so mesmerizing to someone so unschooled in such music? Part of it was the serious concentration of these singers, so intent that one almost was forced to pay attention. One constantly wondered what made these modern men (The women were used seldom.) devote the time to learn and spread this music; and in wondering one began to discover the mystery of it all. Part of it was the startling violations of modern Western harmonic rules concerning intervals and what constitutes a cadence. The dissonances and foreign intervals were not just exotic; they were downright seductive. I know this doesn't begin to describe the almost narcotic effect that at the same time awakened one's senses; I'm at a loss to pin down the specific cause.

From the almost monotonous Chrysaphes work, we jumped into an astoundingly complex and strange piece by Guillaume Dufay (c.1400-74). Starting with a simple canon between two tenors, "Vasilissa ergo gaude" moved into a fascinating polyphony with surprise syncopations and charming echoing of the two tenor voices on top of the lower voices. Much more western in sound, it nonetheless also closed with one of those weird cadences. The four Dufay pieces, spread over the whole program, were highlights and a revelation to me. The "Hymn for Great Compline" by Manuel Gazes the Lampadarios that followed returned to the more austere sound of parallel intervals devoid of polyphony.

The second half (signifying the lesser influence of the Eastern Church?) sounded more western, closer to what anyone familiar with "early" music might expect. It began with a "Latin Chant" that was realized from Byzantine musical notation, which may have given the most accurate idea of how such music was actually performed. It was certainly more assertive than the usual Gregorian chant! Again, there were lots of parallel intervals and some unexpected harmonies.

The whole program had been carried on a just-completed tour in Italy and was also available on a well-recorded CD. For more information on next season's concerts and the many CD's by Cappella Romana, see their website at www.cappellaromana.org. Prepare to have your sense of musical harmony abused in a most educational and satisfying way!



Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at: rod@sgn.org

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