As one of the highlights of its 25th anniversary season celebrations, the Portland-based Cappella Romana offers a rare performance — Jan. 27 in Seattle — of visionary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “All-Night Vigil.”
It’s the oldest instrument we’ve got.
Yet the musical possibilities of the human voice remain inexhaustible. And when a group of singers joins together a cappella — without the “props” of any other instruments for accompaniment — they can produce soundscapes as vivid and enveloping as what you might hear from the most sophisticated orchestra.
Especially when those performers are the members of Cappella Romana, a professional chamber choir celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. Combining first-rate musicianship with scholarship, CR has made a name by specializing in music from the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian traditions — not just from the distant past but with a focus on contemporary composers as well.
Cappella Romana: Rautavaara’s ‘All-Night Vigil’
7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, St. Mark’s Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E., Seattle; tickets from $25 (cappellaromana.org/).Note: The Arvo Part Festival is Feb. 5-12. various venues in Portland. All-access pass starts at $98.
Composers like Einojuhani Rautavaara, a prolific master of choral and symphonic music who died last summer at the age of 87. The program CR brings to Seattle this Friday will be devoted exclusively to this Finnish composer’s choral masterpiece, “Vigilia” (“All-Night Vigil”), a setting of the psalms, hymns, and other texts that are part of the prayer service associated with feast days in the Orthodox Church.
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Anyone familiar with Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” — the best-known such setting based on the Orthodox tradition — will recognize many similar texts. But unlike the Russian composer, Rautavaara wrote his setting for an actual liturgical service, later preparing the more compact concert version that will be performed. As one of the soloists, CR has enlisted the Grammy Award-winning bass Glenn Miller, whose lower vocal depths have become a YouTube sensation.
Following Friday’s concert at St. Mark’s, Cappella Romana will give two performances in Portland, the home base where the ensemble was founded in 1991.
Executive director Mark Powell explains that CR started out as a group of friends planning a fundraising concert after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed San Francisco’s Greek Orthodox cathedral.
Over the past quarter-century, Cappella Romana has won international acclaim through its tours, collaborations with prominent museums like the Metropolitan in New York, and imaginatively programmed recordings (now totaling over 20).
The group has benefited from the vision of founder Alexander Lingas, who remains artistic director. Based at City University of London and affiliated with Oxford, Lingas is regarded as one of leading lights in Byzantine musicology. A couple of years ago, Lingas led CR in the modern world premiere of “Passion Week,” a major choral work by the Russian Maximilian Sternberg (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law) that had long been thought lost.
Lingas made Cappella Romana early champions of the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt — before he started topping classical charts in the West. (He’s currently ranked as the most-performed living composer in the world.) Right after the Rautavaara concerts, their next project is a weeklong festival in various Portland venues dedicated to Pärt.
Rautavaara became associated in his later decades with a radiant, warmly colorful mysticism that makes for a fascinating contrast with the deeply contemplative music, sometimes tagged “holy minimalism,” of his younger contemporary Pärt’s.
In “Vigilia,” which originated in 1970-71 as a commission from the Orthodox Church of Finland, Rautavaara drew on memories of a childhood visit to a scenic and historical Orthodox monastery on the Lake Ladoga island of Valamo. Situated in the disputed Karelia region, the monastery is now part of Russia.
“It seemed to me that the islands floated on air, and more and more colorful domes and towers appeared between the trees,” recalled the composer, who had been raised a Lutheran.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page recalls the animated responses he got when he introduced his listeners to Rautavaara on his WNYC radio show in the 1980s. Page won still more fans for the composer when he decided to release a celebrated all-Rautavaara CD on his small label Catalyst. It featured “Cantus Arcticus,” a “concerto for birds and orchestra” that became his best-known piece.
“I got to meet him once in Helsinki and was impressed by his personal warmth and decency,” says Page. “And he was an awfully good composer. His work holds up extremely well. It’s accessible but also very smart.”