Toensing's 'Kontakion' gets local debut
- SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER
Toensing's 'Kontakion' gets local debut
Last updated January 2, 2009 2:27 p.m. PT
By R.M. CAMPBELL
P-I MUSIC CRITIC
From its first days in the early 1990s, Cappella Romana has cut a long, deep swath through music: from the Byzantine empire that ended in 1453 and its Slavic descendants to the modern world.
PROGRAM: Richard Toensing's "Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ" as well as Orthodox carols and hymns
WHEN/WHERE: Saturday at 8 p.m., Town Hall,1119 Eighth Ave.
TICKETS: $22-$30, with senior discounts; 800-494-8497 or cappellaromana.org
There are other vocal groups in the United States and Europe singing works of the Byzantine era, Greek Orthodox chants and Russian music, but none that brings together in a single repertory all the diverse traditions linked by the Orthodox faith, said Mark Powell, Cappella Romana's executive director and a veteran member of the ensemble. Thus its rise from modest beginnings in Portland and Capitol Hill to a national and international life with an impressive touring and recording schedule.
That all-encompassing reach has stimulated giving to the group from the international Orthodox community, said Powell.
"Our base of support has widened far beyond the Northwest," he said. It includes foundations in Milwaukee and Great Britain and institutes in Rome and Helsinki.
Saturday's concert at Town Hall, which will give the local premiere of Richard Toensing's "Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ," looks at Byzantine musical forms in a contemporary light. A "kontakion," orginally from Syria, has been described as a "poetic homily," introduced in the sixth century, which inaugurated a new musical sensibility in Byzantine culture. In general, an introduction, or ode, is followed by a number of stanzas -- anywhere from a dozen to 30 -- similar in structure and often rhapsodic or dramatic in nature. The classical collection of various "kontakia" stretch throughout the Orthodox church year.
Toensing's "Kontakion" is a setting of a sixth-century poem by St. Romanos, which was inspired, according to legend, by a scroll given to the poet by the Virgin Mary. Written for two choirs and six soloists, it retells the birth of Christ.
Even though Cappella Romana is multilingual -- using Western European languages as well as ecclesiastical Greek, Old Church Slavonic (the liturgical language of Slavic countries) and Latin -- there has long been a commitment on the part of founding artistic director Alexander Lingas to sing in English. Thus the English text of "Kontakion."
Toensing, an American composer who lives outside Boulder, Colo., was reared a Lutheran but converted to the Orthodox church 12 years ago, said Powell. His music reflects that. He wrote a number of Christmas carols, "very sweet and simple but well-crafted," and looked around for a group that could record them and so discovered Cappella Romana. In the midst of discussions between composer and conductor, Toensing mentioned he had a major work in mind and asked Lingas if Cappella Romana would be interested.
The core group of the ensemble is about a dozen paid singers, many of whom have been with Cappella Romana since the early 1990s. For "Kontakion," which calls for a much larger ensemble, a dozen more singers were hired. The work was finished in the spring of 2007 and recorded later that summer. The official world premiere was at St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland Friday night.
"'Kontakion' has very impressionistic chords and sonorities," said Powell, "and dramatic extremes, from very quiet to very loud. It is modeled after Russian choral works and recalls Rachmaninoff's 'Vespers,' although more adventuresome."
The 2008-09 season represents Cappella Romana's second season in Town Hall. After its time at Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption, the group traveled to Holy Rosary Church in West Seattle for several years, with a brief stop at St. James Cathedral for a couple of concerts. Holy Rosary was agreeable and served the ensemble well, but after a while, Powell said, the group wanted a venue in central Seattle.
"We also like the tradition of Town Hall in which many events go on," said Powell.
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