A new exhibit at the National of Gallery of Art, called “Heaven and Earth,” is the museum’s first devoted to Byzantine art, all drawn from Greek collections. A concert surveying a broad range of Byzantine sacred music, performed by Cappella Romana on Sunday night, made the connection between sound and image. The selection of music, representing composers from the 15th century to the present, revealed a tradition both rooted in the past and yet still growing.
The ensemble of seven men and five women was, at its best, singing traditional Byzantine chant. The sound was robust, especially from the men; a full-throated tone that has buzz and resonance, ornamented with the cantillation-like scoops and trills typical of this music.
Other pieces brought styles of more Western music to bear on these ancient Greek texts, from the counterpoint of a 16th-century motet by Franghiskos Leontaritis to the baroque homophony of the 17th-century choral formulas by Parthenios Sgoutas. In these mixed-voice pieces, the ensemble’s balance was thrown off slightly, with tenors having to lighten their sound considerably and altos often not producing enough.
Even so, this was a performance of luminous beauty, with the first half of older music especially lifting the listener beyond the ordinary world outside. The modern selections on the second half tended to sound like choral music of any other tradition, mostly homophonic and with light dissonance spicing up a generally tonal palette of harmonies. Unfortunately, the National Gallery should always make an announcement reminding the audience to silence cellphones, which might have prevented at least two disturbances to this concert’s meditative spell.
Downey is a freelance writer.