An Experience which reached the Sublime: Cappella Romana and Arvo Part

If you were frazzled or upset, worried, angry or just tired, Holy Rosary Church in West Seattle was the place to be Saturday night.

It took less than the first minute of singing by Cappella Romana to set an atmosphere of being wrapped in peace for the entire concert.

It was a perfect marriage, the pure and very well trained voices of Cappella Romana, this time with women as well as men, singing unaccompanied and without intermission or interruption the “Odes of Repentance” of Arvo Part, in a church which lets the sound linger in the air.

Directed by Alexander Lingas, the founder of the group and a renowned scholar of Christian Orthodox music, the program consisted of several kanon odes, or sections, of Part’s “Kanon Pokajanen,” which can be sung as a whole but is designed so that parts can be used separately. These were interspersed with an Orthodox service, the Triodion, including other odes, hymns, prayers and a reading all sung by the group.

Lingas explains in the notes that the concept of repentance in Orthodoxy means an actual change of mind, not so much to do with sorrow for guilt, but a reorientation towards being one with God.

This said, there was nothing proselytizing in this concert. Any message was carried in the music and could be accepted at any level. In the notes, the words (Slavonic, I think) were given in Cyrillic, Latinized Cyrillic, and English, and it was easy to follow along for those that wished.

What crossed my mind during the performance was that Bach would have felt a kinship with Part, not in any similarity in the music, nothing derivative here, but in the overall structure, a knitting together of all the strands into a completely coherent whole, creating meaning which is never lost to sight.

Part’s music is not minimalist in the understood musical description today, but he does use a less-is-more approach. For this work, Cappella Romana used 14 singers in just four lines or fewer, soprano, alto, tenor, bass. They sing with no vibrato at all, so lines and harmonies are pure. Part uses consonance and dissonance equally. There is often a drone usually sung by the basses, and they really are basses not baritones: These notes are very low. The tempo is slow and even with little variation; the pitch range in each line is generally not wide, though occasionally Part takes the sopranos high to great effect. And the dynamics never go to extremes, though there are increases in intensity.

Sounds boring? Not so, the music is profound, hypnotic, restful and full of color, beautiful and not difficult for anyone to listen to no matter how unfamiliar with this genre. Indeed the audience seemed spellbound.

The concert was being recorded for Cappella Romana’s next CD. I don’t know that there is any other group today singing this music with this kind of understanding and polish. We are fortunate that it is based in the Northwest and we can hear it regularly.

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2 thoughts on “An Experience which reached the Sublime: Cappella Romana and Arvo Part

  1. I assume you mean Eastern Orthodox, not Christian Orthodox, and yes, it was Slavonic — good guess — or, rather Old Church Slavonic. Transliterated, not “Latinized Cyrillic.” Oy.

  2. I’m so glad there are comments on Ms. Kiraly’s review! About our recent program, one could say that the transliteration is latinized, since it used the standard Latin (or Roman) alphabet with diacritical marks to show the particulars of Slavonic pronunciation. As for “Eastern” vs “Christian” Orthodox, these terms are exchangeable in many respects. We often use the term “Eastern Orthodox Christian musical tradition” and the like. We have observed some writers in the general press to use “Christian Orthodox” in order to distinguish from the Jewish Orthodox.

    But the main thing here is that I’m thrilled to see that Gathering Note is being read. Many years to Gathering Note (Mnogaya lyeta – in transliteration!) 🙂

    Mark Powell
    Cappella Romana

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