Byzantium: the other liturgy

Capella Romana wraps EMV season with sacred chorales, East and West 

Preaching to the choir. Image: Gentile e Giovanni Bellini

“Architecture,” says Goethe, “is frozen music.” So, as a corollary, music, to the worldly and discerning ear, can be experienced as a sort of defrosted architecture.

For instance, an early Renaissance pilgrim en route to the Holy Land, traversing Europe West-to-East between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christendom, might pass from the uplifting spires of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres to the domed splendours of Hagia Sophia.

And along the way, the music of the liturgy would vary, too, from the layered harmonies of Johannes de Quadris’ Liber sacerdotalis to the ornate, slightly nasal, stripped-down polyphonies of the Greek cantors.

As in architecture, so in music. Western art, in the Renaissance, tended “vertically” – stacked, multi-tiered, aspiring to lofty infinities where parallel lines meet – versus the “horizontal” Byzantine taste for intricate melodic filigree, rich vocal texture and overarching musical modes.

Capella Romana, the Washington/Oregon-based “vocal chamber ensemble,” led a church full of Early Music Vancouver patrons on just such a pilgrimage in the concluding concert of the 2018-2019 EMV season. Aptly for the season, the recital led off with alternating Latin and Byzantine selections from the Easter liturgies of the Catholic and Orthodox rites. The underlying drama of the respective rites may have been the same – crucifixion, descent from the cross and resurrection of Christ – but the East/West contrast was stark in mood, pacing and even voice carriage.

“As you may have noticed,” Cappella Romana founder Alexander Lingas noted, referring to his own exhaustive program notes, “there are two different languages going on here.” The Orthodox liturgy was all Greek to me, but anyone who’s survived Calculus 101 or a college “pledge week” can at least distinguish consonants from vowels in the Euclidian alphabet and hence guess how many syllables in a line of Greek text.

Somehow, in the Byzantine selections, the 12-member ensemble (seven male and five female singers) seemed to wring 8-10 quavering notes out of every syllable. Coupled with the parameter-setting drone lines of modal music, these melismas produced a lulling, almost mesmerising effect – a resonant dome of sound to sweep the EMV crowd off to the hesychastic joys of Mount Athos.

But then, muting their quaver for the de Quadris polyphonies, the singers could just as readily send their pure voices up into the gothic rafters of our own Christ Church cathedral like a choir of Bellini angels – testimonial to the versatility that accounts for Cappella Romana’s varied 20+ CD discography and prestigious European and North American touring schedule.

After the intermission, the latter half of the program departed from the drama Greek and Latin Easter liturgy to take up a series of shorter 15th-16th century Byzantine Eucharistic chants and Hymns to the Mother of God. The common denominator was that all the selections originated among the Greek Orthodox subjects of Venice, the “Serene Republic,” at the height of its effulgent Renaissance.

As Lingas’ program notes relate, Venetian occupation of such strategic island footholds as Crete or Ionia was far from “serene.” But at there was enough mutual tolerance for Orthodox art and music to periodically flourish there even under Catholic occupation.

EMV director Matthew White also used the occasion of the current season’s final concert to announce the line-up for 2019-2020. The society will celebrate its 50th anniversary with its most copious – and eclectic – schedule yet. First comes this summer’s annual Bach Festival, July 30th-August 9th.

Look forward to banner performances (by Montreal’s Ensemble Les Boreades) of the complete Brandenburgs and Vancouver keyboard star Alexander Weimann rendering Bach’s German Organ Mass at Christ Church, plus assorted cantatas, sonatas and chamber works. But this year, the Festival’s repertoire also ranges far beyond Bach, to include everything from Chopin and Shostokovich Preludes to Faure’s Requiem, concluding with Weimann conducting our own Pacific Baroque Orchestra (PBO) and guest soloists in Henry Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia Ode at the Chan Centre.

The PBO will be back at the Chan Centre in November, along with the Vancouver Cantata Singers, to perform Handel’s Messiah under the guest baton of Tafelmusik conductor Ivars Taurins. And, again at the Chan Centre, the PBO and Cantata Singers will join the Vancouver Bach Choir foran April evening of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart excerpts to celebrate EMV’s 50th Anniversary Gala. And, barely a month later, the Society brings in Britain’s a capella Tallis Scholars to recreate the dueling motets played at a 16th century summit tourney between England’s irascible Henry VIII and France’s King Francis I.

An even more daring historic recreation might be archaeomusicologist Benjamin Bagby’s solo rendition of Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon (English surtitles) on the Vancouver Playhouse stage in January, accompanying himself on a medieval harp. More Beowulf, plus Icelandic Eddas and assorted Anglo-Germanic “charms, riddles and elegies” will regale EMV’s core patrons at Christ Church in January, performed by Bagby’s Sequentia Ensemble quartet. Also at the Cathedral in January, the Orlando Consort quintet has compiled a live, a cappella soundtrackto accompany a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

The Christ Church series rounds out with a diverse array of recitals ranging from Dowland Lachrimae to Schubert Lieder. And, at Orpheum Annex in March, PBO soloists will tune their period instruments to perform a selection of new works by contemporary BC composers.

 

 

 

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