Archive for the 'music' Category

CD Review: Cappella Romana, Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music

arctic_light_finnish_orthodox_import-cappella_romana-26407367-859743431-frntSo, occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I think I’m going to have to learn Finnish. I have this harebrained research idea about analyzing the Byzantine liturgical cycle as a national epic (I would still need to figure out the “for whom”, “where”, and “when” aspects of the matter), and since the Kalevala is the prototypical national epic, I’d have to be able to read Finnish to be able to do it properly.

Then my wife and my advisor both take turns in slapping me, yelling, “YOU HAVE ENOUGH TO DO!”

Still, I find the case of Finland fascinating. To break out a couple of academic buzz words, it’s an oddly liminal and contested place; the language, of course, is not Indo-European but rather Finno-Ugric (as the joke goes, Finnish and Hungarian used to married, and when they got a divorce, Finnish got all the vowels), and it’s right smack dab in middle between Russia and Scandinavia, with whom there are contentious histories, as well as contentious identity issues. The Finns are decidedly not Scandinavians or Russians — there is much more affinity with Estonia, which of course has its own issues with respect to contested identity — but the cultural contact happened, and there are imprints of both them to be found in Finland. They are not Russian, they are not Scandinavian (or Germanic at all) — they are Finnish.

Religion is a part of this strange mix; Karelia is the part of Finland that is traditionally Orthodox (so I’m told), which is also the homeland of the Kalevala poetry, in which we see odd references to Orthodoxy, like “standing in front of the icons” being used as a description of a wedding service. It’s enough of a part of the cultural fabric that it’s one of the two state religions of Finland; at the same time, there’s a cultural Protestantism that is also enshrined into law with the Lutheran church being the other state religion. I’m reminded, vaguely, of Germany’s religious schizophrenia as the birthplace of Lutheranism but also home to some fierce cultural Catholicism depending on geography. That’s got an entirely different history than Finland’s religious culture, but it’s the only comparandum I can really call to mind.

Where there is an intriguing religious culture, one hopes there will also be an intriguing culture of religious music, and Fr. Ivan Moody, conducting Cappella Romana, makes the case for the music of the Orthodox Church of Finland on the disc Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music. Finland represents an Orthodox musical culture still very much in its infancy, far moreso than the United States; it has been an independent state only since 1917, with the Church having been granted autonomy in 1921, subsequently coming under the wing of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1923. The transition to Finnish from Slavonic as the liturgical language then helped a unique Finnish musical voice begin to emerge. Basic parish repertoire, I am told, remains St. Petersburg Court Chant sung in Finnish, but over the last century a variety of composers have written music for the Church, contributing to a rich, beautiful body of repertoire. If it’s a bit “anything goes” still, well, they have some top-tier composers writing for them while they figure it out.

Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana present a survey of the 20th/early 21st century Finnish repertory, starting with early experiments by Pekka Attinen (1885-1956) and Boris Jakubov (1894-1923), followed by Paschal music from the present-day “elder statesman” Leonid Bashmakov (1927-), a Psalm 103 excerpt and Trisagion from Timo Ruottinen (1947-), a Cherubikon from a young Finnish composer, Mikko Sorodoff (1985-), and then festal hymns from the Dormition of the Virgin from Peter Mirolybov (1918-2004), who is presented as the composer in the group most connected to the Finnish Church’s Russian musical inheritance, as well as perhaps the one most attentive to this music’s liturgical context. In addition, Fr. Ivan himself (1964-) contributes a concert setting of the Exaposteilarion for Dormition.

I have to say, this has been a very difficult recording for me to figure out how to review, for many of the same reasons that Tikey Zes’ Divine Liturgy recording required an entire blog post’s worth of a prologue before I could talk about how I evaluate its musical merits. The problem is, of course, is that it’s not just a matter of evaluating musical merit; it’s also a matter of talking about how it functions as liturgical music, which is a sensitive conversation for Anglophone, North American Orthodox. This recording, much as with the Zes disc, is largely unconcerned with the categories of that conversation (although Fr. Ivan’s excellent liner notes touch on them briefly) while seeking to maximize the musical quality of the compositions performed. That’s a touchy thing to address when one is an American writing about an American composer in an American context, as with Tikey Zes; I’m writing as much more of an outsider in this case.

Still, there was something I realized while reading Fr. Ivan’s notes, particularly concerning the biographies of the composers. The American anxieties about the categories of “art music” and “liturgical music” overlapping are, frankly, minority concerns borne out of poverty — poverty when it comes to our music, who writes it in many cases, how we’re used to hearing it sung, and how our musicians and composers interact with the outside world, so to speak. There are notable exceptions, of course, but even some of those notable exceptions have to be a bit self-conscious because they’re the exceptions. Plus, there is something of a discourse about “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, problematizing concert pieces and such, meaning that when Orthodox Christians here do in fact do art, there’s some way in which they have to apologize for it, defend it, explain it, etc. In terms of how it presents Orthodoxy, this “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art” position is a defensive stance, culturally speaking, and it has consequences. I know composers who are Orthodox, very good composers who are renowned in secular music circles in fact, who absolutely refuse to pick up their pen to write music that could be sung in church; there’s simply too much baggage.

In the case of Finland, however, what the music on the recording suggests — and what the biographical notes in the booklet confirm — is that we’re talking about “real” composers, as it were, for whom there’s nothing necessarily self-conscious about writing Orthodox church music; it’s just one of the things you do if you’re a composer who happens to be Orthodox in Finland. Attinen, for example, taught in conservatories, wrote film music, and taught at the Orthodox seminary in Helsinki; his Cherubikon sounds very much like it is in dialogue with late 19th/early 20th century Romanticism, while still being a Cherubic Hymn meant to be sung in a Divine Liturgy (although it is evidently difficult enough that this is a rare occurrence). In any event, the hard and fast distinctions we want enforced here about “liturgical” vs. “concert” music don’t really apply; it’s a question of “good” vs. “bad” music, and that’s informed by tradition and liturgical function, but it’s also informed by musical education and exposure to the broader artistic conversation.

So, from that perspective, Arctic Light then becomes a relatively easy recording to review; it’s an aural treat in every way, with the vowel-rich language sparkling in the voices of Cappella’s singers. One can hear the Finnish language “in dialogue” with the ecclesiastical past of its country; fragments of Russian chant melodies echo in Bashmakov’s Paschal Ikos, for example, but they are transformed by the needs of the language and augmented by a harmonic vocabulary employed by an expert composer, and the result is something that “sounds Orthodox” (whatever that means — more to come on that later), but that also sounds like something new, and that could be as easily at home on the concert stage as well as in the choir loft. Sidoroff’s Cherubikon is a highlight, being perhaps a bit more conservative in terms of the sonorities he’s willing to use, but his use of different vocal textures — such as moving back and forth from men only, women only, and the full choir — makes it a rich contribution. Ruottinen is the most experimental of the group; he makes the least effort when it comes to invoking a chant foundation (he uses bits of the same melody as Rachmaninoff used for Psalm 103 in the All-Night Vigil), and at times he writes chords that sound like vocal jazz. The result is not unpleasant by any means, but it does stand out as one of the aesthetic oddities on the disc, and underscores that even within a musical culture that doesn’t feel the need to be self-conscious, perhaps some boundaries need to be kept in mind.

Fr. Ivan’s own contribution is noteworthy for multiple reasons; he is a non-native speaker of the language, and he uses the third mode Byzantine melody for the basis of his setting of the Exaposteilarion for the Dormition (“O you Apostles…”). The result is something that is clearly not operating in the same context as the rest of the repertoire on the disc, but the irony is that it is also the centerpiece of the program. It was written as a concert work, and despite using a different melodic vocabulary than that of the other composers presented, he is able to manipulate the Byzantine melody and build harmonies around it so that it sounds very much of a piece with Attinen and Bashmakov.

Fr. Ivan as the conductor gets Cappella Romana singing this kind of polyphonic repertoire as well as they have in years; the choir sounds bright, clear, and musical. At times the clarity and power of individual voices comes at the cost of blend — particularly in some of the higher voices — but it’s a tradeoff that allows the ensemble to play to their strengths.

If there’s something curious that I find in this collection — well, I should say it’s more about what I don’t find. There doesn’t seem to be a connection to a vernacular kind of singing in this music (although, ironically enough, elements of Ruottinen’s “vocal jazz”-ish choices sound somewhat like stereotypically Balkan folk music), and to the extent that there’s a musical conversation going on here about Finnish national and religious identity, that strikes me as strange. There is Finnish folk singing that has played what I would describe as an archetypal role in the building of national identity (such as what got compiled into the Kalevala); why would such elements be absent from this other project of identity-building? I may misunderstand the issues so much as to have come up with a meaningless question, but in any event, I am left curious about the interaction of Finnish Orthodoxy with Finnish folk culture.

In sum – Arctic Light is a complicated program. Finland, Finnish Orthodoxy, and Finnish Orthodox music have a complex history, and this disc is, in its own way, a document of some of that history. The result is that Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana are able make some beautiful, engaging music within that context, and provide a fascinating snapshot of an Orthodox musical culture that is developing its own very strong voice. Recommended.

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A chapter ends: 22 August 2003-1 August 2014

It’s the Barretts’ last night as residents of Bloomington, at least for the foreseeable future.

I got here 3 weeks shy of 11 years ago, coming here with the specific objectives of finishing an undergrad degree in voice, possibly going on to a Masters, all in the service of the overall goal of setting myself up to be A World Famous Operatic Tenor. Seattle was a place you could be from and do that, but not if you never left Seattle, and IU seemed like just the kind of place where I could get what I needed in terms of final polish and stage time. I figured we’d be here three years tops.

11 years is almost 30% of my life, over 80% of my marriage, 100% of my time as a father, 100% of my time as an Orthodox Christian, 100% of my time as a Byzantinist.

I arrived thinking, based on what I had been told in Seattle, that I had most of what I needed to put together a great operatic career, and I just needed to get the right opportunity onstage in front of the right people. I leave with such musical successes as I have had being elsewhere than the operatic stage, with the vast majority of my success being in the academic arena rather than in the performance arena, and with the platform I have had for that success being largely hard-won.

I arrived hoping I would get to learn French, Italian, and Russian. I leave with some competency in French and Italian, yes, but also having studied Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic (and brushed up on my German).

I arrived thinking I’d be making my name as somebody who sang high notes down center onstage. I leave building a profession of lecturing at the front of a classroom.

I arrived thinking that maybe I’d get a Masters. I leave in the process of finishing a PhD.

I arrived thinking my wife is brilliant; I leave knowing that she is, and that that is only one of her many amazing qualities.

I arrived scared of fatherhood. I leave loving it, and wanting more.

I arrived having wanted the chance to travel really badly since I was a little kid. I leave having been to some pretty cool places like Greece, England, New York, Washington, D.C., and so on.

I want to wrap this up with a simplistic “I arrived a boy; I leave a man” but that’s false. I’m 37, married, with a toddler, and I’m still — as one person phrased it — in the U-Haul stage of life. Whenever it is we do wind up in a position to buy our own home, I expect that we will probably live in that first bought home for less time than the nine years we have spent in our little rental house. I hope and pray that I will have a real job before I’m 40; God knows. I had what would count as a “real job” from the time I was 21 to the time I was 26; I guess I’ve done some things in the wrong order. Oh well. For the last five years I’ve enjoyed the ride at least, which is more than I could say about big chunks of the previous six years, and I can look at the experience in its totality and see that nothing was lost, only that some things were transformed.

Two organizations/communities in particular have meant a great deal to me in my time here and have a special place in my heart — The Archives of Traditional Music, where I worked from April 2008-June 2009, and Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church of Indianapolis, where we have gone to church since January 2013. These were both places where warm welcome and appreciation were expressed at very key moments, and they both allowed the space for me both to do things I was able to do as well as to consider bigger possibilities I hadn’t thought of before. Another thing they have in common is that I got to spend far too little time at both places — just over a year for ATM, and about a year and two-thirds for Holy Apostles. Much gratitude to Alan R. Burdette, Marilyn Graf, and Susie Mudge at ATM, and another generous helping of thanks to Fr. John Koen, Debbie O’Reilley, Panos Niarchos, Angelo Kostarides, Dr. Thomas Kocoshis, Peter Americanos, and so, so many more at Holy Apostles. Special mention to Dean Maniakas and Fr. Bill Bartz of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, who have made us feel incredibly welcome and who have made it clear that we have friends at Holy Trinity.

I have not always enjoyed the experience of the last 11 years, as both of my longtime readers doubtless well know. Still, I am grateful to have had it, even if I still massage some literal and figurative scars that serve as reminders of certain lessons.

Time to go. Tomorrow we’re out of here. See everybody in Boston when we arrive. Glory to God for all things.

 

A few items of special (read: “geeky”) interest for sale

Howdy — with twenty-five days left before we have to be out of our house in Bloomington (with it being somewhat up in the air when precisely we’ll land in Boston), I have a few special items for sale that it may be easier to deal directly on rather than wait for somebody to find them on Amazon. (I also have several books that I’ll devote a blog post to shortly, but I’ll start here.) All serious, conscientious offers will be, well, taken seriously. If interested send me an e-mail — rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.

Update, 11 July 2014: I have listed all of these on eBay. Links to the eBay listing are with each item.

The items are:

  • Batman Original Motion Picture Score, Composed by Danny Elfman. Expanded Archival Collection, La-La Land Records LLLCD 1140, Limited Edition 2 disc set, 5000 printed. eBay listing.batman 1989 expanded score

 

 

 

 

 

  • Batman: The Animated Series, Original Soundtrack, Music Composed by Shirley Walker. La-La Land Records LLLCD 1082, Limited Edition 2 disc set, 3000 printed. eBay listing.BTAS score

 

 

 

 

 

  • The Dark Knight Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Music Composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Warner Bros. 511104-2, 2 disc Special Edition. eBay listing.TDK special edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Akira: The Special Edition. DVD, Pioneer 11537. 2 disc special edition in tin case. eBay listing.AKIRA Special Edition DVD

 

A psalterion is empty

Eleven years ago, when I first started investigating the Byzantine chant repertoire of Orthodox sacred music, my friend Mark Powell gave me some advice — track down the Divine Liturgy recording by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir. Hard to find, he said, but it’s the real deal.

I did indeed track it down — I couldn’t find it on Amazon or on any of the usual CD websites, but I eventually found a Canadian retailer who specialized in Greek things who had it. I remember popping it into my CD player and not having any idea what to expect, and the first “Ἀμήν” just about knocked me out of my chair with its wall of men’s voices.

That CD became my benchmark for what good Byzantine chant sounded like. Other discs became other benchmarks; Cappella Romana’s Divine Liturgy in English became the benchmark for good Byzantine chant in good English, for example. In terms of a general snapshot of the sound of Byzantine chant done well, however, the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy remained the standard.

At some point, the label Opus 3 made new stock available of the Divine Liturgy disc. It became the kind of thing that I would make sure to have extra copies around, and over the span of a few years, I gave away countless of them to people. A couple of years ago, Opus 3 apparently discontinued it, and it’s back to being scarce. Too bad.

I discovered other recordings by the Greek Byzantine Choir — their Koukouzelis disc, their Mother of God disc, their Christmas disc, the Akathistos Hymn, the anthology that alternates their recordings with some by the Serbian Orthodox singer Divna, and so on. I also found my way to Angelopoulos’ recordings with Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. These recordings were all gateways to different corners of the tradition, and each one became both a treasure and a learning tool.

Five years ago, I had the chance to go to Greece for the summer. I wrote Alexander Lingas a note asking, whom can you recommend for Byzantine chant teachers in Athens? His suggestions were Lycourgos Angelopoulos and Ioannis Arvanitis, and essentially, he said, it boiled down to language. They themselves were exemplary students of the same teacher, Simon Karas, but Angelopoulos spoke no English, really, only Greek and French; Arvanitis spoke very good English. Well, I opted for Arvanitis — I speak some French and I was in Greece for an immersion Greek program, but I didn’t really want my chant education to be in a language that was itself still in progress for me. I studied with Arvanitis all summer while attending Agia Irini, the church in Athens where both he and Angelopoulos chanted, so I certainly heard plenty of the psaltic ethos represented on the Divine Liturgy disc in person while I was there.

While I saw and heard him quite a bit in the flesh that summer, I never did actually get the chance to meet Angelopoulos — well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I had chances, but I chose not to introduce myself, I guess because I figured that, as my teacher, if Arvanitis thought it was appropriate to introduce me, he would do so. For the same reason I never went up to chant at Agia Irini that summer; my assumption was that if my teacher thought that was a good idea, he’d tell me. (It wasn’t until later that John Boyer told me, yeah, no, that’s not really how it works — you just go up and tell him you’re Arvanitis’ student and my friend, and he says, great, stand here and sing with us.)

After that experience, I developed other 1-degree-away connections; John Boyer, certainly, who was a student of both Angelopoulos as well as Arvanitis; Alexander Lingas, whom I got to know a bit better at Oxford Patristics in 2011; my friend Taso Nassis, a Chicago psaltis who had also studied with Angelopoulos and Arvanitis for years, was personally very close to both, and had absorbed just about everything both had to offer. Another friend, Brian Whirledge, went to Athens a couple of summers ago to study with Arvanitis, and he sang for Angelopoulos at Agia Irini while he was there as well.

Somewhere along the way, I also developed an awareness that Byzantine chant had its own internal squabbles, and that Angelopoulos and Arvanitis (and, by extension, the friends I had made in connection with them) tended to be seen as on a particular side of those squabbles. I still don’t really understand what that’s all about, and I don’t really need to understand; suffice it to say that I’ve always been grateful for both what I’ve been taught and how I was taught it.

Three days ago, Sunday morning, I had the good fortune to be singing Orthros and Divine Liturgy with Cappella Romana at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. To be joining Cappella as a psaltis for concerts and services of Byzantine music was, in many ways, the closing of the circuit that was started all those years ago when Mark, Cappella’s Executive Director, told me to find the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy disc. Further, we were singing a lot of things that morning that one hears on that recording. Towards the end of Liturgy, one of the psaltes checked his phone, and suddenly he was trying to get Alexander Lingas’ attention. Alex saw the phone, looked dismayed, and made the Sign of the Cross. My colleague showed me the phone — “Lycourgos Angelopoulos has died”, said the headline.

As part of our encore that afternoon, Alex gave a brief memorial speech about Angelopoulos, and we sang “Memory eternal” before launching into the medieval melody from Jerusalem for “Χριστὸς ἀνέστη”. Shortly thereafter I got a text from John saying that he was heading out to Greece the next day for the funeral.

While I never met Lycourgos Angelopoulos, it is safe to say that both in terms of his professional as well as his personal output, he had a great deal of influence on my development as a church singer and as an Orthodox Christian, even as I have been but an outlier in that structure. It seems a fair observation that what Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has been for theology — a strong center of pedagogical gravity and  the hub of a far-reaching network of students — Lycourgos Angelopoulos has been for the psaltic art. He has been Libanius for Byzantine chant, perhaps. Lycourgos in antiquity may have been Νομοθέτης, the Lawgiver; perhaps this Lycourgos may be fairly remembered as ψαλλοθέτης.

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place. Καλό ταξίδι, Δάσκαλε. Αιωνία η μνήμη σου. Ζωή σε μας.

I close with two pieces from other people — first, my 2011 translation of an article on the 30th anniversary of the Greek Byzantine Choir; second, a reflection by John Boyer on the death of his personal friend and teacher of so many years:

Αιωνία η μνήμη του Δασκάλου! Ζωή σε μας!
May the memory of our beloved teacher be eternal!

The joy I have experienced these last few days with my classmates, friends and parents during festivities surrounding graduation from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is tempered today with the sad news of the passing of my beloved teacher in the art of Byzantine Chant, Archon Protopsaltis Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I began studies with Mr. Lycourgo in the Summer of 1996 and remained in frequent contact with him over the last 18 years – half of my life. Never have I met a more dedicated teacher in the Psaltic Art; Lycourgo had hundreds of students over the last few decades, many of whom went on to become great cantors in their own right, others who became great scholars in Byzantine Music, others who went on to become clergy, still others who took the knowledge and skill he passed on to them to their ascetic lives in monasteries and convents. The Clan of Angelopoulos students reaches the far corners of the earth, as do the scores of recordings of his groundbreaking choir, Η Ελληνική Βυζαντινή Χορωδία (The Greek Byzantine Choir).

A controversial figure, to be sure, those who know him personally know him to have been a loving yet strict taskmaster, a consummate teacher, a faithful Christian, extraordinarily generous, with a witty sense of humor and a voice that could move mountains. I have had the honor of chanting with my beloved teacher numerous times in many different venues, most recently at his home parish of St. Irene’s in Athens last Summer. I will never forget the sound of his voice, the twinkle in his eye, his inspiring and moving chanting and his profound gift for directing a choir. Who I am today as chanter, teacher and conductor I attribute greatly to the time I was so blessed to spend with the great Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I can only aspire, along with many others of his students, to carry on his torch of Byzantine Music, especially here in the United States, not simply as cantor but as teacher, conductor, composer and promoter of this traditional liturgical music of the Greek Orthodox Church. Αιωνία η μνήμη αυτού. Ο Θεός να τον αναπαύσει. May his memory be eternal. May God lay him to rest. Χριστός ανέστη! Christ is Risen!!!

With sadness and love in the risen Christ,

John Michael Boyer, MDiv.
Protopsaltis, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco
Lambadarios, Holy Cross Chapel, Brookline, MA

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place.

Two more last-nanosecond gift ideas

I meant to include the following items in the previous post, and, well, it just didn’t happen. So, here we go:

All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service, by the St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (reviewed here). This is a half-in-Greek, half-in-English recording of Orthros for Holy Friday, and it’s a fantastic aural snapshot of what services are like in Holy Cross’ chapel. It’s chanted by the seminarians under the direction of Grammenos Karanos, the professor of Byzantine chant and protopsaltis for the chapel, and it’s a great addition to the growing number of recordings of Byzantine chant composed specifically for the English language. The St. Romanos Choir is a men’s ensemble; a recording of Holy Cross’ women’s chant ensemble, the St. Kassiani Choir, was made during the same sessions and will be coming out soon.

 

The Choir (reviewed here). A fascinating documentary on a truly admirable musical institution in this country, the Madeleine Choir School. The Madeleine Choir School is a ministry of the Cathedral of the Madeleine (Roman Catholic) in Salt Lake City, and they do some amazing work. The DVD gives a look at the experience of participating in the academic and musical life of a choir school — an experience that might be relatively common — or at least not unknown — in England, but is esoteric in the States to say the least. This is a wonderful gift for anybody who is a choral singer or a music educator.

Need last-minute gift ideas?

It’s Monday of the week before Christmas. Do you have all your Christmas shopping done? Of course you don’t. So, here are some suggestions:

- The Gifted Pan prosphora baking dish. For the would-be ecclesiastical baker who feels stymied by handheld seals that seem to have never been applied five minutes after what seems like pressing down with all your might.

 

- Scapple. If you’re a Scrivener user, this is an excellent companion application that basically allows you to doodle your ideas without having to go quite to the intellectually self-conscious extreme of “mind-mapping”.

 

Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church by Fr. Dellas Oliver Herbel (Oxford University Press, 2013). I reviewed the book here; in short, it’s a great book for anybody interested in North American religious trends or Orthodox Christianity in the United States, with a lot to digest in a very reasonable length.

 

- Stocking stuffer 3-pack of CDs: Cappella Romana‘s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (reviewed here) and Robert Kyr — A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio (reviewed here), with Archangel Voices‘ Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God (reviewed here). Three very different kinds of recordings of what one might broadly call “Orthodox music”, and each very good in its own way. The Kyr is an oratorio informed by Orthodox liturgy; the Zes is an Orthodox liturgy that at times feels like an oratorio; and Panagia is a themed recital of Orthodox choral music about the Virgin Mary. What’s funny is that the Zes disc is sung entirely in Greek but often seems quite Italian; Panagia is all in English but feels quite Russian. What can you do (or, if you like, Τι να κάνουμε)?

Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist by Jane G. Meyer (reviewed here). A beautifully-illustrated (and not distractingly anachronistic) children’s book set in sixth-century Constantinople during an episode in the saint’s life. If you’ve got a young reader who’s interested in singing in church or who has started to develop an early fascination with Byzantine and hagiographic arcanity, this is the book you want.

75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking by Paul Levitz (Taschen, 2010). And this would be the book for the reader who is simply a geek and unashamed to admit it. Like, you know, me. (Just sayin’, just sayin’s is all.)

- Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at 75 Years of DC Comics. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this.

Okay — may you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!

CD Review: Cappella Romana — Robert Kyr: A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio

Robert-Kyr_A-Time-For-LifeI am not otherwise familiar with the work of Robert Kyr, but this intriguing collaboration with Cappella Romana and the Third Angle New Music String Quartet (actually a trio) makes me very curious to become so. As performed on Cappella’s new CD release, A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio is a moving musical dialogue between Judeo-Christian and Native American prayer texts about the created order and our relationship to it.

Kyr here has constructed a libretto that brings together portions of two different Orthodox texts, the Akathist in Praise of God’s Creation and the Office for the Environment (observed on 1 September by the Ecumenical Patriarchate), as well as selections from the Psalms, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, the United Nations Environmental Sabbath Service, and prayers and hymns from the Sioux, Navaho, Pawnee, Ojibway, Chinook, and Netsilik Inuit tribes. It is in three parts: Creation, Forgetting, and Remembering. Kyr’s structure seems to express the idea of our present-day ecological concerns being a function of the fall of mankind; we were created first in right relationship with God and creation, but in our hubris we chose our own way over God’s, harming our relationship to both. Parts II and III express this right relationship in terms of memory; “We forget who we are; help us to remember” is the refrain throughout Part II. Part III weaves together the different ways all of the texts use the idea of remembering. “O Lord, help me to remember who I am”, says the Orthodox Office for the Environment; “Remember, remember the circle of the sky,” replies a Pawnee/Osage/Omaha song. If we can but remember, we will be able to repent; “Restore my mind for me,” the words of a Navaho chant plead. Repentance, as Kyr’s own words then tell us at the end of the peace, will then allow us to understand, to rejoice, and to appreciate the beauty of God’s created order.

Kyr does a very nice job of arranging these texts so that the dialogue never seems forced; he seems to want them all to speak on their own terms, in their own spirit. I am familiar with similar attempts to interweave religious texts from different traditions that do not give them the same respect; Giles Swayne’s Stabat mater, for example, is principally interested in using other texts to marginalize the particularity of the Virgin Mary’s lament at the cross. Musically, Kyr’s language here is not the angry, mushy, ambient noise that so much contemporary music can be; rather, the interplay with the voices and his adeptness at sung musical phrases reminds one more of Britten (and, often, Britten’s own invocation of Purcell). His music is restrained and tasteful, allowing the texts and ideas to be front and center. The “We forget who we are” refrain in Part II is particularly haunting, as I suppose it should be.

For Cappella, this CD is something of a departure; while concert works informed by Orthodox liturgical music are nothing new for the ensemble (see, for instance, Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ and Fr. Ivan Moody’s Akathistos Hymn), this is not really a choral piece but rather a piece for a solo octet, and while they have recorded with orchestra before as well as with organ, this seems to be their first time on record with a chamber music ensemble. It is nice to see Cappella championing repertoire like this; it demonstrates an impressive artistic vision.

Happily, the performance on the disc demonstrates a very real breadth of ability that is equal to that vision. All of the soloists do marvelously with the score; in particular, Mark Powell and LeaAnne DenBeste — who was excellent as the Mother of God soloist in the Toensing Kontakion — are excellent, with crispness of diction and clarity of voice that serves Kyr’s music very well. The Third Angle New Music string trio accompanies the solo octet with a lot of sensitivity, but they are also present enough to never sound like they’re holding back in order to be a “pit band”.

The booklet contains the complete libretto of the oratorio, as well as essays from Dn. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Kyr, and Cappella’s Artistic Director Alexander Lingas. The essays are very much worth reading; they provide useful context for Kyr’s composition, Cappella’s own involvement with its performance and recording, and the interest and theological perspective of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as regards environmental concerns.

I’ll close this review with Kyr’s own words. He closes his own essay with the following:

I believe that music and the arts have a crucial role to play in the transformation of the current energy of cynicism and destruction into the life-sustaining attitude and energy of creativity.

Indeed. Go and do likewise.


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