'Kontakion' reflects the old, new
- SEATTLE POST-INTELIGENCER
Monday, January 5, 2009
'Kontakion' reflects the old, new
Last updated January 4, 2009 7:23 p.m. PT
By R.M. CAMPBELL
P-I MUSIC CRITIC
It is no surprise that Cappella Romana, with its roots in Orthodox
Christianity, should celebrate the holiday season at the very last, during the 12 days
after Christmas. Always the concert is in early January and illuminates not
only the actual day, but also provides a way to launch the New Year with
first-class music but also thought.
WHEN/WHERE: Saturday night at Town Hall
On Saturday at Town Hall, the group of superb singers not only sang carols
that are Orthodox in shape and spirit, but also gave the local premiere of
Richard Toensing's "Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ," which was written with
Cappella Romana in mind. As such, the evening was musically rewarding as well
as a satisfying way to bring the season to a close and look forward.
The "kontakion" is not a musical form well-known in the Western church. The
"poetic homily," as it has been described, was introduced into Byzantine world
in the sixth century and inaugurated a new musical sensibility in Byzantine
culture. In the main, an introduction, or ode, is followed by stanzas --
anywhere from a dozen to 30 -- similar in structure and often dramatic or
rhapsodic in nature.
Townsing's "Kontakion" is a setting of a sixth-century poem by St. Romanos
said to be inspired by a scroll given to him by the Virgin Mary. It is written
for unaccompanied two choirs and six soloists. To accommodate the scoring,
Cappella Romana, usually about a dozen singers, doubled in size. The excellent
soloists came from the ensemble.
The composer, who lives outside Boulder, Colo., converted to the Orthodox
church a dozen years ago from the Lutheran church in which he was reared. His
music since reflects the traditions of his new faith. However, he does not want
to simply repeat history in his music, regardless of how compelling it may
be, but make it a reflection of the old and new. "Kontakion," with a text in
English, is exactly that. About 13 stanzas were sung Saturday.
Indeed, his work is a remarkable coupling of those two worlds. One senses its
antiquity immediately, a feeling that is sustained throughout the work. But
there is also a freshness of view that leavens the whole.
Even given the somewhat rigorous structure of the "kontakion," Toensing found
ways to provide dramatic range to his work, which gives a musical kind of
validity that other "kontakia," designed solely for religious observances,
might not possess.
The first half of the program was devoted to carols and hymns of all sizes
and attitudes. Most were written in the past century, with texts in English and
Greek. Although they may be familiar in Orthodox circles, they are not so
known outside that universe. They should be. The variety was admirable and the
effect astonishing -- from music of sheer beauty to dramatic amplitude.
None of that would have been possible without the guiding hand of Alexander
Lingas, who founded the group in the early 1990s in Portland, then mounted a
second season soon after in Seattle. Currently a senior lecturer in music at
City University in London, he is a scholar with all sorts of academic studies
at prestigious universities in the United States and England. But there is
nothing remotely pendantic about his approach.
It is lively and informed, often in difficult waters. The result is singing
that is wonderfully blended, accurate in pitch and precise in ensemble. This
is music-making on a very high order.
P-I music critic R.M. Campbell can be reached at 206-448-8396 or
_rmcampbell@..._ (mailto:rmcampbell@...) .
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