Christmas on the Julian Calendar

By Philippa Kiraly

January 6th this year was Christmas day in the Julian Calendar, and this is the calendar followed by the Eastern Orthodox churches. So it was perfectly appropriate and not at all tardy for Cappella Romana to give a concert of Russian and Ukrainian Christmas music at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Montlake last Saturday night.

The church was nearly full of people, many from Seattle’s Russian community, and many in the intermission spent time looking at the fine mosaics and iconic paintings which adorn it.

The performance was conducted not by Cappella Romana’s music director, Alexander Lingas, but by an equally renowned scholar in Slavic music, this time of the 17th and 18th centuries. Mark Bailey was guest directing for the third time with this group.

Often when hearing the Cappella, the music is in Eastern Orthodox idioms which have only become familiar to our ears through its moving and beautiful performances. As this performance continued, the influence of European composers became more and more pronounced, until towards the end one could hear many stylistic references to Italian, French and even English motets or madrigals, even oratorio.
From the early part of the 17th century, the Cappella sang instances of a rare type of chant, using an ancient chant from the Orthodox background with vocal lines added above and below. These were sung in parts either by the men or by the women, but not both at the same time, and followed by part songs, a coupleof which were madrigal-like, cheerful and brisk with lively rhythms, another a sweet and tender hymn, and one we might recognize as an anthem.

For the whole program, the words were ones churchgoers would all recognize as belonging to Christmas. The program thoughtfully had the words in Russian with, beside them, a phonetic spelling so that we might follow along, and the words in English next to that.

Most of the gorgeous music of the second half would have been very much at home in a cathedral in Western Europe. A couple of pieces had sections which could grace an opera, another, “Who is this King of Glory?,” had an extraordinary melismatic soprano solo, in which one voice took off on just one syllable and with it created a long and amazing tracery all over the vocal range. Others had all the joyful praise we associate with Christmas music, one even having voices sound like heralding trumpets.

Cappella Romana used eighteen singers for this concert, a larger group than than is common for them, and as usual, the singing was excellent. The first half of the program was not very expressive, due to the style of the time, and in one work for three men only, to myears it sounded somewhat rambling and pedestrian. Expression returned with the later music, and the last several songs sounded glorious; joyful, praising and rich, or loving and gentle.

We can get very used to the same Christmas music every year. To hear music like this from a completely different background—think hearing this in St. Petersburg on an icy January night—is a rare treat, and I hope Cappella Roman will do similar programs here each year.

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