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Cappella Romana: Time-Travel to Constantinople

February 1, 2013

Stanford Live

Cappella Romana Portland-based vocal chamber ensemble Cappella Romana made a wise decision when they moved the time-traveling portion of their program, titled "From Constantinople to California," to the end of their Friday evening performance in Stanford University’s new Bing Concert Hall. So mesmerizing was their computer-simulated presentation of The Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia that, had they opened their Stanford Live residency with it as planned, the rest of the program would have seemed anticlimactic.

The evening had been years in the making. Its inception began with Bissera Pentcheva, an associate professor in Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History who has devoted considerable time to researching the aesthetics and phenomenology of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, the largest and grandest church of 6th-century Byzantium. Pentcheva wondered if it would be possible to re-create the experience of hearing sacred music written for Hagia Sophia as it would have been heard in the church’s remarkable acoustic. Imagining the potential spiritual impact of hearing music expressly composed for an acoustic whose 10-11 second reverberation patterns enabled singers to sound as virtual conduits for heavenly forces, she proposed to Jonathan Abel, a consulting professor at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA, as in karma), and CCRMA graduate student Miriam Kolar, that they use computer technology to reconstruct Hagia Sophia’s acoustic. (The complete story may be found here.)

Almost four years later, Cappella Romana, known for its explorations of ancient and contemporary Byzantine music, entered Abel’s computer-constructed acoustic in Bing Hall. In the second half of the concert, surrounded by a large array of specially positioned loudspeakers, 15 singers, six of them women, formed a semicircle on the floor of the hall and began singing into two omni-directional microphones. Led by Artistic Director Alexander Lingas, who also sang, the artists performed seven consecutive selections, the oldest of which has been traced to the 12th century.

It is impossible to describe the experience objectively; to even attempt to do so would miss the point of a sensual experience meant to induce a transcendent state. Throwing all caution to the winds, as it were, the “performance” was the closest to lift-off I have experienced short of chemically enhanced listening sessions or the final hours of a seven-days meditation intensive.

Closing my eyes, it was not hard to imagine that the singers’ voices were actually reverberating back and forth through Hagia Sophia’s enormous sanctuary and remarkable 50 meters high dome. The constant bass drone heard in much of the music helped ground an experience that sent the senses soaring, as the entire space seemed to fill with voices proclaiming the glories of the Christian God.

To the skeptical, or those allergic to computer-simulated environments, this may sound like so much caca or the hallucinations of an aging ‘60s tripper. But I know no other way to describe an experience that, in Pentcheva’s words, was intended “to create the sensation that you were standing in a space that was neither in this world nor in heaven, that you were hovering in between.” Even without the additional visual and olfactory elements of the church — the incense, glittering walls, stunning mosaics, now absent tapestries, and floors of marble whose bookmatched pieces suggest the uninterrupted waves of the sea — the sonic environment was unique. Working in consort, the team of Abel, Pentcheva, and Lingas created an experience that is sure to make history, and spearhead further projects on multiple continents in the years ahead.

To the Present

The first (unamplified) half of the program was devoted to modern choral settings of Byzantine Chant. Without the reverberation they would encounter in their Saturday program in Stanford Memorial Church, Cappella Romana sounded curiously removed from their natural element, somewhat dry, and lacking in impact.

Three compositions by Michael Adamis (1929-2013) sounded, at times, like a potent modern update of the ancient music heard in the second half of the program. The singers took a while to warm up — one of the male voices cracked a bit before coming into its own, and the top soprano initially sounded thin and tentative. When individual voices emerged from the ensemble’s dry-sounding sonic tapestry, some seemed ill-equipped for the solo careers that many Chanticleer alums have successfully undertaken. But together, they made a potent if less than memorable sound.

Several modern works from the Greek Orthodox Churches of California, including Frank Desby’s “Apolytikion of the Holy Cross” and Tikey Zes’ “Sunday Communion Verse,” were distinguished by a soothing, loving gentleness absent from the early music of Hagia Sophia. To these ears, Theodore Bogdanos’ “Kontakion of the Dead” seemed to hark back far more to the polyphony of Palestrina than to divine liturgy of Hagia Sophia. But as lovely as many of the pieces were, the absence of the church reverberation for which they were intended led them to pale before the glories of the concert’s astounding conclusion.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.