Archive for July, 2012

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CD review: GOA Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, Μέγαν εὕρατο (Vespers for St. Demetrios)

Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos was kind enough to send me a review copy of Μέγαν εὕρατο, the new recording released by GOA’s Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir.

The disc is a collection of the festal hymnody sung at Great Vespers for St. Demetrios (chosen to honor Abp. Demetrios), including the Anoixantaria (for those unfamiliar with the practice, Psalm 103 from “Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good…” to the end is theoretically sung rather than merely read for major feasts in present-day Byzantine practice, although in my experience this is one of those things that a lot of people don’t do with the excuse that “nobody does that”), “O Lord I have cried” with stichera, Doxastikon, and Theotokion, hymns for Litya and Artoklasia, aposticha, apolytikion, and “Many years” for Abp. Demetrios. The ensemble, if I understand correctly from the list of participants, is a group of psaltes largely from the Northeast, including Dr. Grammenos Karanos, the current professor of Byzantine music at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and others from the New York area.

The first thing that must be said is that this is a wonderfully sung program; the wall of sound produced by these gentlemen is never less than first rate, and hymns with slower, more melismatic textures such as the Anoixantaria are particularly beautiful.

One of the things that I try very much to do is to view recordings like this, labors of love by people who are clearly far more knowledgeable and able than I am, as master classes, opportunities to learn finer points that I haven’t had the opportunity to learn otherwise. I have been informed by a particular point of view that makes certain assumptions, and not everybody is necessarily informed by the same perspective and assumptions. (For example, given a number of factors, I tend to assume that even for Byzantine chant, choirs are ideal, with solo cantors needing to be judiciously used. However, I am well aware that for many people, for this repertoire, the solo cantor tends to be the assumption in terms of performing forces, with choirs only happening for special occasions.) To that end, there are questions that I have about aspects of the recording. Some of these questions veer into critical territory from an entirely subjective musical standpoint, but may well be entirely answerable in terms of style.

First off, something that is immediately apparent has to do with repertoire choices. These are, with a couple of exceptions, not selections out of what have been represented to me as “the classical books”. The melody used for the prosomoia at “O Lord I have cried”, for example, “Ὢ τοῦ παραδόξου θαύματος”, is not the melody found in the Irmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis, and the Kekragarion is not from the Anastasimatarion of Petros Peloponessos, either. They’re not bad, necessarily (although I have to say I definitely prefer Ioannis’ melody for the prosomoia), but I am  curious about what informed the selections.

Second, there’s a tendency throughout the disc to cut off of endings of phrases (including isokratema) quite sharply; this is something that makes sense to me to do as a solo cantor, so that the congregation knows that the places where you’re breathing are intentional, but it makes less sense in a choral setting unless there’s a specific stylistic reason to do so. It’s obviously a choice, and one that is executed distinctively, carefully, and consistently, but I’m left wondering if it’s necessary for it to be as prevalent as it is here.

Third, the apichimata are sung chorally, which makes me wonder if there’s a performance tradition for apichimata that divorces them from their function. Soloists sing the verses at the “O Lord I have cried” stichera, so it’s not simply a matter of everything being choral for purposes of this disc.

Fourth, as performed, the ison moves around a lot more than I’m used to. I’m aware that this is a point where it seems everybody and their dog will tell you “the real way” you’re supposed to realize the drone, so I assume this is a stylistic point as well.

Strictly in terms of the physical presentation of the disc, it would be nice to have had more of a booklet; the performance is entirely in Greek, and while many of the texts are reasonably familiar, for those not used to Greek an included translation would help make the product more accessible. Doubtless this is a function of production cost; perhaps an “online booklet” or some such would be a way of accomplishing this in a cost-effective manner next time.

To sum up: this is a gorgeous-sounding recording that is probably best described as a snapshot of the state of Byzantine chant in Greek in the Northeast, which seems to be healthy indeed. I’ll be very interested to hear what the Archdiocesan Choir does next — the Archdiocesan School seems to doing a lot to try to raise the profile of Byzantine chant, and I’m looking forward to future developments.

“When we name our children, we should do so as ones who are identifying them as God’s heirs”

There’s a page from a church website making the usual rounds right now titled about Orthodox practices with a newborn. As somebody who is going through those steps right now and having to explain various things (what’s the difference between churching and baptism? Why do you have to do the churching? What’s the whole naming thing when you’re going to do a christening? etc.), I think it’s pretty good. We wound up churching Theodore after, well, ten days, I suppose — it was sort of curious how it worked out, since our priest came over to do the naming on a Tuesday, and told us, “Well, there’s no hard and fast reason to do 40 days if it’s not practical to do 40 days, but it’s theoretically supposed to be the first real trip outside of the house for the mother and child.” Megan looked sheepish and said, Um, I went to Target yesterday. The priest gave a dismissive wave and said, not a big deal. Let’s just do the churching on Thursday.

Well, the reason we could do the churching on a Thursday was because it was the same day that Fr. Peter E. Gillquist’s body was lying in the center of the church, and we were serving a Divine Liturgy before he was to be taken up to Holy Trinity in Indianapolis for the funeral services proper. (There were around 32 clergy at the altar for his funeral. There’s no freaking way All Saints could have done that.) So, Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist carried Theodore Harvey Barrett II down the aisle, past the body of his own father, Fr. Peter E. Gillquist, into the altar. There was something weirdly normal-seeming about the whole thing — in the midst of death, we are in life — and there were a number of people who said to me that it wasn’t every day that the whole circle of life seemed to get represented like that.

Anyway. Something that hit me about the Orthodox newborn practices piece was this bit about names:

Orthodox Christian naming practices vary. A child is sometimes named after the saint commemorated on the day of birth, sometimes in honour of some other saint or biblical figure. Sometimes, however, the child receives the name of a virtue, an ancestor, or some other name entirely (see for example, early saints who were named after pagan philosophers like Plato). There are no “hard and fast” rules (as there might have been in ancient Judaism), except that Christian parents should name their child in a thoughtful and prayerful manner, not whimsically, idly, or merely according to some prevailing fashion. Our names embody our identities and point to our vocation. When we name our children, we should do so as ones who are identifying them as God’s heirs and dedicating them to His service.

A philosopher (and by a “philosopher” I mean Bruce Willis speaking Roger Avary’s words) once said, “I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.” Well, that’s not quite right. My name has a meaning; “Richard” means “king” (it’s cognate with rex, Reichert, etc. and it’s the semantic equivalent of the Greek name Βασίλης), “Raymond” means “protector”, and then “Barrett” can mean “strong man”, “hatmaker”, or something like “con man”, depending on what part of Europe your family is from. My family appears to be from the part of Europe where it means “con man” (evidently the only remaining reflex of this meaning in Modern English is the legal term “barratry”, which itself seems to mean something akin to “ambulance chasing”); of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m the strong king of con men (…or does it…?). No, what it means is that my father, Richard Ellis Barrett, wanted me to have his name but didn’t want me to be a junior. My middle name comes from my maternal grandfather, Raymond Myrick, whom I never got to meet.

Theodore is named for his great-great-great-grandfather, about whom I’ve written a decent amount. Theodore means “gift of God” (Theo- “God” doros “gift”, with the appropriate inflected Greek masculine ending), and is apparently semantically equivalent to the Hebrew form of “Matthew”. His namesake was a general (if perhaps not necessarily a great or even a good one, although this much is not entirely clear to me), so it was a no-brainer to us that Theodore the General should be his patron saint. But wait — “Harvey” apparently meant “battle worthy” in Breton. So he’s the battle worthy general who’s a gift from God. Of course, there’s still the whole problem of being a con man — but anyway.

Of course, the point isn’t that our firstborn is going to be a battle-worthy general of an army of con men who all think they’re God’s gift. (Although he might be, I suppose.) The point is that, “Harvey” and “II” and all, he has the best name we could give him, with the best link to his family’s legacy that we could possibly provide, however tenuous of a connection it may be and however forgotten his namesake may have been. The argument could be made that it’s constructed and contrived and trying to revive a memory that had already apparently passed away within two generations, but one doesn’t rebuild bridges by throwing up one’s hands and saying, “I guess we can’t get there from here.”

Perhaps it’s a lot of weight to place on a little boy’s name, but at the same time, there’s no question at the very least that he’s a gift from God. Besides, Theodore has gained 23 ounces and grown an inch since being discharged from the hospital, and he was eight pounds to begin with. I think he’ll manage.

Fr. Peter E. Gillquist and Theodore Harvey Barrett II: In the midst of death we are in life

A little over nine years ago I read Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Fr. Peter E. Gillquist. It was one of a flurry of books I read around this time, starting with the Ware The Orthodox Church and Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition, and including Schmemann’s For the Life of the World and Clark Carlton’s The FaithThe WayThe Truth, and The Life. I wouldn’t say the book had an overabundance of things to say to me, since I didn’t really have the conceptual problems of an evangelical per se, but given where I was at the time (the full story of which will have to wait), and given how I generally approach things, I remember thinking, Well, if this guy’s job is supposed to be missions and evangelism, then maybe he’ll know what to tell me. I wrote him a fairly lengthy letter explaining to him a lot about where I was at, and sent it off not really expecting a response, figuring that he had to get letters from perplexed Catholic-wannabe Protestants all the time.

A couple of weeks later, I got a large envelope in reply from Fr. Peter, containing a copy of Matthew Gallatin’s Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, and a handwritten note that advised me to get in touch with a local priest named Fr. James Bernstein. “He will understand you!” the note said.

That turned out to be a fruitful pairing indeed, and I would say that Fr. Peter’s willingness to take me seriously enough to pass along some kind of useful response was a big factor in becoming Orthodox two years later.

I finally met Fr. Peter a few months after his son was assigned to All Saints, the parish in our adopted home of Bloomington, Indiana. He gave a wonderful presentation for IU’s OCF that was also attended by a good 80 people from the greater community. He continued to make appearances at All Saints every so often over the next couple of years, until finally he moved here in 2009.

Fr. Peter and I worked together on a number of projects, related to All Saints’ building project as well as Orthodox Hoosiers, the Orthodox IU alumni association that never quite achieved critical mass. It was Fr. Peter’s brainchild, he and I poured a lot of time and effort into it, and it really was (and is!) a wonderful idea. Alas, it just was the wrong time, and neither of us really had it in us to try to get it going past the first big push. We both hoped that the initial response would be sufficient to get some momentum going and to convince somebody else to take it on, and even with a mailing list of 500 people, that just didn’t turn out to be reality. I think that perhaps we had a shared vision that was nonetheless harder to realize than it could have been given a rather marked difference in methodologies — he was always very up front about trying to approach things from what he understood to be the science of marketing, and I was less trying to get people to “buy”, as such, than I was trying to get them to see the particulars of the vision for themselves. We were further hampered by some broader chicken-and-egg problems at All Saints that Orthodox Hoosiers was at once intended to help solve but also severely limited by itself. In the end, we both tried our hardest, but it was perhaps the right idea at the wrong moment.

Fr. Peter E. Gillquist with his son and baptizands on Lazarus Saturday, 2012.

Fr. Peter passed away earlier this evening after an old struggle with cancer had reared its ugly head again in the last several weeks. It was a blessing and honor to have known him, and I can truthfully say that he made a difference in my life and the lives of those around me. May his memory be eternal, and my heart goes out to his family, particularly Fr. Peter Jon.

Theodore Harvey Barrett II was born at 6:49pm on 25 June 2012; he was born in the same hospital where Fr. Peter was also undergoing some last-minute surgery. Fr. Peter Jon was able to come down to post-partum from his father’s recovery room to give the first blessing to the child after he was born. That is very much its own story, one that I do not have time to detail here in full, except to say that he and his mother are healthy and thriving. I wish that there had been more overlap of time on this earth between Theodore and Fr. Peter than simply the last week. I would have loved for Theodore to have known Fr. Peter, with his gravelly voice, his ability to grab a crowd with either a joke, a prayer, or a Bible quotation, and his insistence on treating you like he’d known you for years even if he just met you.

In the midst of death we are in life. I have more to say about both transitions, but this will have to do for now.


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