Cappella Romana devotes an evening to Serbian Orthodox music

By R.M. Campbell

The Puget Sound region has an abundance of choral groups, from very small ensembles to large masses of singers. While they vary in quality, most are more than respectable and some first-class. They cover the repertory in astonishing breadth and depth.

Most successful, in terms of audiences, seem to be those which have a niche of some kind as a starting point. Cappella Romana, the Portland-based group which gave a concert this weekend at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, has the most esoteric and least familiar — music from Byzantine era succeeded by music of the Orthodox faith in Slavic countries. While the group, which has an astonishing record of national and international touring, remains true to its roots, as it expanded its own empire considerably performing modern as well as ancient music. All uncommonly well.

For its weekend sojourn in Seattle, its founding artistic director Alexander Lingas turned over the reins to the British composer Ivan Moody who works in the long tradition of Orthodox music. His focus was on Serbian Orthodox music of which he is a specialist. He was ordained an Orthodox priest three years ago. He is well-known in Cappella Romana circles, both as a conductor and as a composer. His “The Akathistos Hymn” commissioned by the vocal ensemble in 1998/99, is the largest work it has performed and subsequently recorded.

The principal work was Stevan Hristic’s “Requiem, ” which occupied the first half of the program. He was the best-known Serbian composer in the first half of the 20th century, bringing, according to specialists, “a cosmopolitan view to Serbian life, both as a founder of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra and director of the Belgrade Opera.” He studied in Leipzig, Moscow, Paris and Rome. By some accounts his “Requiem” is his masterpiece. He died in 1958. His “Opelo,” or “Requiem,” dates from 1915. It is a uniformly of noble proportions and mellifluous sound, one phrase unfolding into another with no break of mood or musical thought. It does not have the sort of differences in spirit one finds in a requiem mass written by Western European composers, but it has remarkable continuity and consistency. With forces of nearly 20 singers, the Capella Romana did full justice to the piece, giving it undiminished beauty of sound, transparent textures and limpid phrases. The concert would have been better served if this had been the final gesture of the evening.

The second half was a potpourri of smaller works that stretched from the 13th century to 1988 and Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “Rodjenje Hristovo (“The Birth of Christ”). “Sticheron in Honor of St. Symeon the Myrrhgusher” was written by Teodosije of Hilandar, who founded monasteries in Hilandar and Studenica in the 12th century. It is a work of striking dimensions and dramatic effects, handsomely sung by the excellent men in Cappella Romana. “Rodjenje” was also well-sung with admirable precision and good balance. Born in 1935, Rajko Maksimovic has written music sung by Cappella Romana in the past. Her “Militsa’s Weeping” is a good successor to those works.

Unfortunately, Moody’s “Seven Hymns to Saint Sava” is not so successful. The material is so much alike t pales after a while.

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