History, music at Cappella Romana

McCaulay Singer-Milnes

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On November 4 and 5, Whitman College students will have the chance to experience a crossover of multiple academic disciplines when Cappella Romana, an ensemble that performs music from the “Christian East and West”, visits campus to give a lecture and performance.

Combining history, music and ethnography, the Portland-based vocal chamber ensemble strives to provide people with an experience representative of times past.

“I think this is a great opportunity for students and faculty and townsfolk alike to experience Byzantine music,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of History Ethan Spanier. “For that two hours [during the concert] they will have the opportunity to almost time travel back and surround themselves in the environment of ancient music.”

Due to the age of the pieces, listeners will be able to experience something that under normal circumstances they perhaps would not encounter in their day-to-day musical selections.

“Music is something that is always contemporary; music doesn’t exist unless performed and to perform you have to be present, but that said, this music is very old and that can evoke a sense of time and culture that is very different from ours,” said Executive Director of Cappella Romana Mark Powell.

Spanier served as “the instigator” for the event in an effort to get professors from multiple departments working together to provide new ways for students to learn material. In this case, the event will span the interests of the history and music departments.

“I am currently teaching a class on Byzantine history and civilization and part of my teaching philosophy is environmental history or experiential history,” said Spanier.

This concert will also benefit students who are taking Music 397, a class that covers the evolution of music from the medieval era to the 1700s, taught by Visiting Johnston Professor of Music John Lutterman, as well as students who are involved with choir.

“Several of the members of the choir are ethnomusicologists, and much of their approach stems from an anthropological study of the Byzantine rite, which is a living tradition that has preserved a repertoire and performance techniques that roots in medieval practices,” said Lutterman.

The concert will feature the music of the Byzantine era in order to further engage students of said classes as well as others who are interested in ancient music.

“This particular concert, we are doing music from the Byzantine tradition, so music from composers in what is now mainland Greece and Asia Minor,” said Powell. “The music is in Greek.  As a chant concert, you will hear no parts in terms of Western choral singing; just melody with a drone note underneath.”

Cappella Romana will also lead discussions before the concert to engage the audience and facilitate discussion before the show begins.

“We are also giving some talks at the [college] which is really great.   I hope it will allow for some really great interactions with students and maybe we will learn about their perception of the music,” said Powell.

On Friday, Nov. 5, the chamber members will talk to students, addressing the more technical and musical components of their concerts.

“Together a small panel will give a a public lecture on Byzantine notation and the theory behind the singing in Chism Auditorium,” said Spanier.

According to Powell, the music being performed is also interesting because of the contrast between the style of music Cappella Romana will sing and the style of the other composers that are associated with this particular period in history.

“Most of the music that we are doing on this program comes from around the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century.   That places it in around the same time as Mozart and Hydan, but it is a very different culture that is being represented,” said Powell. “I think people will find it fascinating.”


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