Shut your eyes and picture yourself a thousand years ago in the newly established Greek Orthodox monastery of Grottaferra south of Rome. You are listening to the monks singing their religious observance: hymns, communion, praise and prayer.
Open them, and you are in Town Hall Saturday night, hearing Cappella Romana sing this same music. Sometimes, hearing secular groups sing chant, no matter how beautifully, something is missing. Monks whose singing may be less musically perfect have that indescribable extra, the religious belief which underlies all they sing, and it is unmistakable. It’s not a performance to them.
Most of the eight singers who performed this concert, Byzantium in Rome, are Greek Orthodox, while the artistic director, Alexander Lingas, has studied and been steeped in Greek Orthodoxy and its music his entire life and career. This shows in Cappella Romana’s singing. It’s why you can feel transported to Grottaferra while listening to it.
Thaat said, the group’s singing is as beautiful as the music it performs. The eight men have strong voices which blend together. They sing without vibrato and with their mouths open only a little, creating a resonating chamber so that the sound comes through warm, and rich with a faintly nasal tinge.
The music’s metre is a slower or faster walking pace, the melody spans about an octave and is usually a single line over a drone, the volume ranges between a medium loud to a bit louder. The result is never dull. It’s healing music, hypnotic and peaceful. Within the narrow limits, there are subtle inflections, tiny ornaments, emphasis usually produced with a slight slur up to a firm note, or a barely noticeable slither down, and long melismatic lines sung solo.
The group’s soloists are distinguished in their field. John Michael Boyer is protopsaltis (first cantor) of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis in San Francisco, Stelios Kontakios has held the same position at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington D.C. Hearing them sing this music is, frankly, an enlightenment and a privilege, and Cappella Romana’s concert an experience, not just a performance.
In an expanded season of five programs next year, Cappella Romana is giving four of its Seattle concerts at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Montlake. It should be a most appropriate setting.
There’s a two-CD recording out of Saturday night’s program, Byzantium in Rome, available now.