Cappella Romana at St. Demetrios

Since its beginnings in 1992, Cappella Romana has performed in various locations in Seattle but none has seemed like home to the group until its performance Saturday night at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Montlake.

The acoustics are excellent, the ambience, all curved walls, domed ceiling and iconic mosaics, fits Cappella Romana’s continuing exploration of early and late music from the Christian East and West, with an emphasis on the music of the Orthodox Church. The group will give its Seattle performances there all this season. (The pews, however, are uncomfortable. Take a stadium cushion.)

Saturday’s program considered the musical cross-fertilization between Greeks and Latins in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with even a dip to the earliest extant notation of a Greek work from the 2nd century A.D. The piece with its with surprisingly modern intervals was composed by  Mesomedes, a Cretan poet and court musician to the Roman emperor Hadrian..

I found artistic director Alexander Lingas’ scholarly notes fascinating to read, but the East-West connections were hard for the ear to trace except in a few instances.

One in particular was a noticeable change from a Latin cantorial chant style to the Greek one. The difference in speech and thus sung rhythm is slight but accommodating of the different languages, and the Greek one emphasizes beginnings of phrases with a marked emphasis on the first  and other important words, coming to them from just underneath the note and from the back of the nose though it is not a nasal sound per se. Also, according to baritone Mark Powell, the Greek scale is divided into 72 different tones as opposed to the western twelve, so there is much musical shading, just as a painter might use 72 shades of color. It’s often virtually imperceptible, but adds vibrancy to the chant.

On the Western side, works by 15th and 16th century composers Orlando di Lassus, Claude le Jeune and Guillaume Dufay had a familiar ring.

Of more interest to this listener were the Greek sacred works with a cantor singing over a changing drone. The hynotic Hymn for Holy Friday by Manuel Gazes the Lampadarios was highly atmospheric. Others, like the anonymous Cretan Polyphonic music for the Divine Liturgy  and  “In te Domine speravi” by a Greek Roman Catholic, Franghiskos Leontaritis, displayed the clear influence of the west.

While the seven men of the choir sang with their usual fine blend and understanding of the music, the two women were less well matched, either with each other or with the group as a whole.

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