Cappella Romana Fill St. James Cathedral with Devotion to Ancient Vespers

The first Vespers of St. James the Apostle, from the Codex Calixtinus of about 1150 A.D. was brought here for a rare hearing Saturday night by Cappella Romana, appropriately at our cathedral dedicated to St. James. It could hardly be called a performance. It’s a devout religious experience for the singers, who when it was originally sung were always monks. Yet today, it takes profound scholarly knowledge to be able to sing it, which Cappella Romana has.

Marcel Pérès (Photo: Peter van de Lavoir)

On Saturday night, the ten male singers were led by guest director Marcel Pérès of Ensemble Organum, in France, who has made it his life’s work to research medieval musical literature. Among the singers was Cappella Romana’s artistic director Alexander Lingas, himself a noted scholar in the field mostly of Byzantine and Russian Orthodox music.

Ten strong voices, using no vibrato and with a resonance and slightly nasal sound which comes from using the whole skull as resonating chamber, sang the entire Vespers in just under two hours without intermission, processing around the cathedral and singing from different locations. Often they sang antiphonally across the altar, five on one side five on the other, usually with one side singing drone and the other the melody. When they came to the “Magnificat” they had processed around to singing under Mary’s statue in the northern transept, facing her, with backs to the large congregation gathered.

The music was mostly written for a single line of voice with often a drone underneath, but at times divided into two vocal lines and drone, and at one point, in the final “Conductus,” the quite fast and vigorous music was in three parts, the earliest known instance of this.

Hearing the music was meditative and hypnotic, mostly because there is little dynamic change in the music, and often the melody remained within a fairly small range of notes with the drone much lower in the voices. At times however, the melody went higher, and while it seemed that all the voices sang in their middle range, it was clear that tenors came in handy for those moments. Long melismatic phrases were common as was intricate ornamentation, while solo phrases or sections abounded and at least seven of the singers had such solos. The lion’s share were taken by Pérès, who unfortunately had a weaker voice than all the rest, though his artistry in ornamention and expressive melismatic passages made up for that.

Unfortunately the seats in St. James are remarkably uncomfortable, and almost two hours without intermission or even a brief break in which people could move about slightly, could distract from the complete attention which the music deserved.