Posts Tagged 'sacred music'

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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CD Review: Archangel Voices, Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God

I-112Archangel Voices is an Orthodox vocal ensemble that specializes in liturgical choral repertoire by present-day composer, particularly focusing on English-language settings (either composed for English texts or adaptations of existing settings for English). Their Artistic Director is Dr. Vladimir Morosan, a scholar of Russian Orthodox choral music in particular (he is the translator of Johann von Gardner’s venerable series Russian Church Singing, volume 1 and volume 2, he has his own monograph on Russian church choirs right before the Revolution, and he has published several critical and performing editions of Russian choral repertoire), and an advocate of Orthodox liturgical music more generally.

Archangel Voices is one of the outlets for Morosan’s advocacy, and Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God is their sixth release on disc. The intent of the recording is to represent the vast diversity of Orthodox hymnody about the Mother of God — hymns from the daily cycle of services as well as the Marian feasts, special services, and also para-liturgical compositions. There is not only a rich collection of hymns but also composers; there are many Slavic composers such as Chesnokov and Bortniansky presented here, as well as composers active in present-day North America, such as Benedict Sheehan, Morosan himself, and Psalm 103 project composers Richard Toensing and Kurt Sander.

This CD is a different kind of aesthetic than that of some of the other recordings of Orthodox music that are out there. Cappella Romana’s approach is to do a variety of repertoire, make informed stylistic choices for the performance, and be as consistent with those stylistic choices as it can — an “early music” approach, if you like. Kurt Sander’s As Far as the East is from the West sought to reproduce the aesthetic of a large parish choir in a Russian choir loft. Holy Cross’ recent release was simply the sound of their chapel services transferred to disc. Samir Cohlmia’s recording of Dormition chants captures the aural experience of the Byzantine cantor as soloist. And so on. Archangel Voices does something a little different; rather than model themselves on a particular existing Orthodox musical aesthetic or attempt to be stylistic chameleons, they are more along the lines of a Western-style chamber chorale, made up of well-trained musicians who are flexible enough to sing pretty much whatever is put in front of them and make it sound good with a consistent, well-blended, shimmery, warm sound. Perhaps one could argue that Archangel Voices represents one model of what a good American parish choir could be; good enough musicians to sing virtually anything as themselves instead of trying to sound like something else.

It’s an approach that certainly does sufficient justice to most of the repertoire on this disc; particularly nice from the Slavic selections are Chesnokov’s general canon to the Mother of God, Nikolsky’s Megalynarion for Pascha (I am thankful to Morosan and co. that they opted for something less overdone than Balakirev’s setting, which is generally treated out here in the Midwest as the national anthem of American Orthodoxy), and Lvovsky’s Exaposteilarion for the Dormition. In general, I will say that the North American composers who are writing for the English language tend to stand out a little better; perhaps it is not surprising that music written for and sung in the same language sounds better than adaptations. Among this group, Morosan’s Koinonikon for Marian feasts, Nazo Zakkak’s setting of “I have thee as a fountain” from the Paraklesis service, Sander’s Megalynarion for the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, and Toensing’s setting of “Awed by the beauty” from the Third Mode kathismata are all particularly lovely.

The recording isn’t completely flawless; there are a handful of moments that are a touch rough-feeling, where the ensemble doesn’t quite shimmer as much as they normally do. The ornaments on the ubiquitous paraliturgical Georgian hymn “O Vineyard, fair and new” don’t work as sung; they’re a mismatch with the style the choir employs otherwise, and as a result they sound like mistakes and baubles rather than specific ornamentation choices. To the extent that there’s a pastoral model here for choirs, I would suggest that the lesson here is, ornaments need to be treated as organic parts of a chosen style, not merely additional notes to be sung; if that’s not a practical or pastoral possibility, then it is an acceptable choice to leave the ornaments out. Also, given the ensemble’s stated objective in the booklet “to embrace various traditions and styles of Orthodox church music as they are manifest in the practice of parishes in North America”, it seems like something of a missed opportunity to not include any of the Greek-American composers who have written Orthodox choral music in English, or to use any of the growing library of settings of Byzantine chant composed for English (polyphonic adaptations of what are already themselves adaptations of Byzantine melodies aren’t really the same thing). Sometimes “pan-Orthodox” appears to mean, in practice, “everybody but the Greeks”, and opportunities like this would seem to be appropriate settings for trying to combat that. Alas; I’m sure there are reasons for such choices.

These are minor issues; Panagia is a high-quality effort overall from a high-quality ensemble, and very much worth checking out.

Byzantine chant at Holy Cross and CD Review — All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service

This has been a ridiculous semester on multiple fronts. I have been assisting with a course where there has been a constant cascade of homework to be graded pouring on top of my head, plus I’ve been trying to write a dissertation, plus I have a child I’m trying to rear, plus I’ve had extracurricular activities, plus I’ve got a 1:15 commute to church on Sunday I didn’t have a year ago, plus I have a spouse dealing with all of exactly the same things. Too much fun.

It is an exciting time for Byzantine chant in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese; the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music just performed an invited concert at Agia Irini Church in Constantinople, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology recently unveiled their Certificate in Byzantine Music, and they also released a new CD, All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service, recorded by their new full-time professor of Byzantine music Dr. Grammenos Karanos and his students.

As somebody who has been fortunate enough on a small handful of occasions to attend services in the Holy Cross chapel, I can happily tell you that All Creation Trembled is a pretty accurate snapshot of at least the aural experience of the chapel. The students chant in antiphonal choirs, often divided by language (while not represented on this disc, Thursday evenings have of late been dubbed “Antiochian night”, where the Antiochian seminarians get the right choir and chant in Arabic, while the left choir gets Greek.) They do so from classically composed scores in Byzantine notation, in both Greek and English, and they do so under the expert direction of Dr. Karanos, who functions as the protopsaltis (first cantor) of the chapel. At the same time, they have also in the last few years had a group of particularly strong students to help, especially John Michael Boyer, who has been the lampadarios (director of the left choir) of the chapel for the last couple of years, and Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born seminarian who studied Byzantine chant with Fr. Nicholas Malek at the Balamand before emigrating to the United States. Other standouts, at least when I’ve been there, have included Niko Tzetzis, Gabe Cremeens, Andreas Houpos, and Peter Kostakis (and others — forgive me if I’m blanking on a couple of names).

The disc’s repertoire is hymnody from Holy Week, specifically from the Matins for Holy Friday (sung on the evening of Holy Thursday), and it is about 50/50 Greek and English. The English scores, composed by Boyer, employ the translations of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), occasionally modified by Boyer for metrical purposes. The recording quality is very clean, and the singing is robust and clear throughout, with an ensemble sound never dominated by one voice. This in particular is a point I want to praise; the recording could have very easily become “The Karanos/Boyer/El Massih Liturgical Variety Hour”, and it never goes there; even Karanos himself is only heard a couple of times as a soloist. A sense of the chapel choir as, above all, a liturgical ensemble is always maintained, with everything they sing and how they sing it dictated by liturgical concerns. The result is well-balanced and it sounds wonderful. If it is not quite professional-level — some background noise creeps in, and sometimes it sounds like the microphones are not quite optimally placed — well, it’s still an excellent entry in the category of American recordings of Byzantine chant, and it still captures the moment very well, a moment that represents a revitalized program in its early days, one that is starting to have an impact elsewhere — El Massih is now teaching Byzantine chant at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for example, and that can only be for the good. If this can be taken as a statement of intent on Dr. Karanos’ part, then the future is encouraging.

The Certificate program also suggests an encouraging future; it’s intended to be the equivalent of a conservatory program in Greece, and it looks like it’s pretty comprehensive. I know one person who was going through a try-out version of it, and it sounds like it would be well worth the two years. One hopes that eventually there might be some financial assistance available for students who would want to go through such a program but aren’t there for M.Div. work. I would also very much like to see the program replicated elsewhere (I’ve discussed my own curriculum proposal elsewhere); if I have any particular critique of all of these efforts, it is that they are ultimately inaccessible for those of us not in the Northeast. I would have no problem with the Northeast functioning as a central location for a network of programs, but access to this training and to these kinds of opportunities needs to be geographically more spread out than it is. In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese alone, there’s no reason there couldn’t be a formal training program and Byzantine choir in every Metropolis (although color me skeptical about attempts to do this kind of thing online as a normative approach — I can’t imagine any of my voice lessons from the old days going well if done that way).

I leave you with the video of the Archdiocesan School’s concert at Agia Irini. Enjoy.

The foreword for Ta Prosomoia

As promised, here is my draft translation of the foreword for George Chatzichronoglou’s book Ta Prosomoia. I have tried to make it readable while keeping Chatzichronoglou’s word order and syntax as much as possible; I have occasionally paraphrased to solve “English problems”, as my first Greek teacher liked to put it. Occasional notes are in parentheses; feedback and questions are more than welcome.

Foreword

Acknowledging that you don’t “bring coals to Newcastle” (Greek: “κομίζω γλαύκας εἰς Ἀθήνας”, lit. “bring owls to Athens”), I am undertaking the edition of the present book, with an eye towards helping my brother cantors in the important and pious task which they perform, and to bring love and instruction to those who are today’s students and tomorrow’s brother cantors, and finally to contribute to the good order of the worshipping life of our Church.

The necessity of the existence of a comprehensive edition which will include all of the original melodies and model hymns in brief and slow irmologic versions and also include most of them recorded on a compact disc, is great. There are equivalent editions. However, I want to believe that in the present edition, recording all of the familiar model hymns, while adding on the one hand the common apolytikia of the Saints and the slow festal apolytikia, and on the other hand the compact disc, we come closer to the desire and the need.

The model hymns and the Anastasimatarion (the chant book containing the weekend resurrectional hymnody for all eight modes) constitute the original and prerequisite knowledge for the cantor to endure with dignity in his many duties.

With the term “prosomoia” we mean that hymn which is chanted precisely with the music of some other model hymn (that is, it copies it (προσομοιάζει σ’αὐτόν), so to speak) which we call a “Πρόλογος” (model hymn), since it is said for (προλέγεται) the prosomoion. In other words, above the text of the prosomoion there is an ascription: Mode I (ἦχος Α) “O all-lauded martyrs” (“Πανεύφημοι μάρτυρες”). We chant thus the prosomoion that follows according to the melody of “O all-lauded martyrs”. The music of the model hymns belongs to them exclusively; for this they are named, in addition to Πρόλογοι, also “Αὐτόμελα” (roughly, “the very melody”, “the famous melody”, “THAT melody”, “its own melody”, “the original melody”, etc.). There are a lot of original melodies and they are classified as “Ἰδιόμελα” (“unique melodies”). The original melodies, the automela, are a distinct category of unique melodies which “loan” their music to other hymns (prosomoia) while the unique melodies, the idiomela, we would say, keep their music for their own use.

Our age, the Information Age, the age of superficiality, the age of short-term thinking, the age of terrible haste, in which the ring of words has been lost, did not leave even our music unaffected. There are endless reasons for musical performances, for research efforts, for musicological opinions and such other important things, but at the same time there is a shortage of effective cantors. There is consideration for music as a noble craft but not as the noble craft of music. Our acoustic aesthetic has been disturbed by “crooners” (? φάλτσα) who are clothed in the legitimacy of science and by arbitrary personal musical interpretations, which lead outside of ecclesiastical boundaries. We are bombed by hymns of Holy Week, which singers (as opposed to cantors) and actors chant on TV, with the style of the “street” and the morals of the gang and we look at all of these things, helpless to respond and to express the view of the competent cantor, because all of the doors are closed. Thus “we pick at our scab” , as our wise people say, smugly self-identified as “traditional people”, as if somebody asked us that, as if they dοn’t hear what we’re saying, as if that’s what was asked. However, outside of titles and boasts, errors and omissions, our goal is and remains one. The service of the cantor, as conscious practice, towards the believer who steps over the threshold of the Church and enters into the midst of it in order for his soul to find peace with the fear of God. I am trying to “put in order” musically this fear of God and the service to the fullness of the Church, with this book, which whereby does the following:

1) Address the so-called “practical” cantors, who are the pillars of the services of Orthodox worship, embattled in all of the remote areas of the Greek countryside and in the whole Greek community. Helpless, without support, forgotten by all of us, we who haggle between ourselves for a treasure which is not rightly our and which we ought properly to serve with respect. The scope and objective of musical study is the “high and mighty” work of the cantor who appears at the analogion (cantor’s music book stand), with knowledge and faith as support.

My sympathy and my brotherly love is given for these cantors; it is a well-worn theme in my radio broadcasts for the Church of Greece. The moment has come, then, that I should do something for them.

2) Involve the teachers and the students of Byzantine music. On the hand, to the teachers [this book] is offered as a helpful tool, to the students on the other hand as a breath between boring paralaggi (Byzantine solfegge) exercises. These breaths, however, are so necessary for them to continue their lessons with new energy, as necessary as it is for the swimmer to lift his head out of the water and to breathe.

The interposed teaching of the model hymns for the duration of many years of lessons relieves and frees the student, offering at the same time useful knowledge of Byzantine music.

3) Address the proficient brother cantors who, chiefly in the slow versions of model melodies, are finding a way to brighten the sacred feasts of their parishes and to give something different and majestic. I did not put the slow versions of the model melodies on the CD, because if and when somebody wants to use them, he should substitute the hymn of the prosomoion of the feast in the already recorded melodic line of the model hymn. (Editor’s note: I don’t completely understand what he means here. The Greek text here is πρέπει νά ἀνακαταστήσει τήν ὑμνολογία τοῦ προσομοίου τῆς πανηγύρεως, στην ἤδη καταγεγραμμένη μελωδική γραμμή τοῦ Προλόγου. If somebody can clarify, that would be most appreciated.)

And finally:

4) I think that this book is useful for priests, who, apart from the spiritual task they perform in their parishes, they also have the obligation to chant correctly. For the most part, I am referring to kontakia and apolytikia, but also all of the prosomoia which are included, mainly in the Menaion. Let us not forget that enough cantors start their training in Byzantine music prompted by the priest. Therefore, as the first teachers, apart from the customary practice of the Church, which they know best, they should be the living example even in the study of prosomoia and of Byzantine music in general.

The novelty in this book is the recording of a sufficient number of apolytikia in slow irmologic melodic style. There are enough of them scattered about in older editions, but mainly they are personal compositions appropriate for sacred feasts.

Holding the conviction that with this book, which is my first, I am helping the cantors and the Church, I ask your indulgence for any errors and omissions, and I pray that the Triune God give us strength to continue to struggle for the best.

Athens, 22 August 2010

George Epam. Chatzichronoglou

Archon Ymnodos (“Chief Singer”) of the Great Church of Christ

Book review: Ta Prosomoia by Georgios Chatzichronoglou

One of the things that is at once intended to make Byzantine chant easier for the cantor and yet paradoxically also makes it seem impossibly difficult for the student in an Anglophone context is the use of model hymns for much of the hymnody. There are multiple factors that make it complex; in a Greek context, you see the incipit of the model melody and the mode, you look it up in the Prosomoia section of the Irmologion if you don’t know it (or in the otherwise appropriate section of the Irmologion based on liturgical function), and that’s that. And while yes, there are over 100 model melodies, from a practical perspective there are about 10 that you can get by for a good while starting out with.

However, if you can’t read Greek, then you have to rely on English incipits, and you probably have to know three or four possible incipits because we don’t have a standard English text (and some incipits may refer to hymns that a particular jurisdiction’s “greatest hits” liturgical book might not include). Then there’s the matter of metrical translations, which some translators don’t bother with (Nassar, Lash, etc.), making the use of model melodies basically impossible, and which some translators do (Holy Transfiguration Monastery in most instances, Fr. Seraphim Dedes). Still, even if, say, you’re going with all HTM texts all the time, what about the melodies themselves? HTM has a model melody book, but it’s all staff notation, so you’re getting one person’s interpretation of the melody, and some of what they include is a little idiosyncratic. Fr. Seraphim Dedes also has a model melody book that is theoretically available in both staff and Byzantine notation, where there is a traditional melody and a “popular” variation (as with, for example, the melody for the Kontakion of the Nativity of Christ) he includes both, and he’s even done the very nice thing of indexing his incipits to Holy Transfiguration’s, so that’s probably the best option in English, at least at this stage of the game.

Τὰ Προσόμοια: Πρόλογοι-Αὐτόμελα σε ἀργὸ και σύντομο εἱρμολογικό μέλος (Athens, 2010) “Prosomoia: Model Hymns and Original Melodies in Slow and Brief Irmologic Versions” by Archon Protopsaltis Georgios Chatzichronoglou is a single volume, Greek-language reference to all the model melodies (in both “brief” and “slow” versions where such exist), and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music has just recently started distributing it in the United States. It simplifies the process only somewhat for the learner in an Anglophone context — a traditional Irmologion is a little difficult to find here, although you can find pdfs if you know where to look and whom to ask. Also, this arranges all the melodies in a format similar to Dedes’ with a nice index of incipits, and there’s a lovely CD of Chatzichronoglou demonstrating 69 of the melodies. Obviously this is going to be a difficult reference to navigate for somebody with no facility with Greek, but it could well be a good reference for a teacher who does have some Greek and who can help the student understand what they’re seeing.

I will say that one of the virtues of this book, besides its organization, is a very clean, readable presentation; with some of the classical books the plates are clearly a bit worse for wear, so it’s nice to see Byzantine music publishers taking advantage of digital typesetting. At the same time, what this reveals is that Chatzichronoglou has taken an analytic approach in presenting these melodies, writing out certain standard ornamental choices instead of reproducing the melody as it is written out in the classical books and leaving it to the teacher to tell the student what ornaments are traditional. Lest anybody see this as an arcane matter only impacting practitioners of Byzantine chant in Greece, there is a similar issue when it comes to publishing standard works in the Western classical repertoire such as Handel’s Messiah; one can buy scores where none of the performance tradition is written out and it is up to the performer to mark in what they’re choosing to do (or what the conductor directs them to do), and one can buy scores where a certain strain of ornamental tradition is written in. For example, here’s the last page of the opening recitative, “Comfort ye my people”, in the Kaplan edition, a fairly standard practical score:

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As somebody who has sung this probably hundreds of times in my former mode of existence, I can tell you that while that’s what’s on the page, just about nobody sings it that way. Your teacher or your coach or your conductor will have suggestions for what to do with it.

By contrast, this is the same page from the Carus-Verlag score, and you’ll see at the bottom possibilities of how to ornament certain parts.

1089990_10103134447943059_618321796_o

Those possibilities represent but one performance tradition; there are others, and your teacher, coach, or conductor will have their own ideas about what you should do. The point is, these sorts of variants in printed scores represent a point of similarity with Western music, not a point of departure from.

To show how this works in the Chatzichronoglou book, here is one of the most frequently-used model melodies, “ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, itself the first troparion at “O Lord, I have cried” for the Feast of St. George (23 April), and commonly used as the model melody for troparia at “O Lord, I have cried” as well as at Lauds for martyrs. This is how it appears in the Irmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis, one of the standard classical books:

os gennaion

And then this is how it appears in Chatzichronoglou:


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Much of what’s different consists of editorial choices that are aids to the singer; bar lines have been written in, isokratima has been added (although your protospaltis may well want you to do something else than what is written here), and breaths have been written in, in some cases rewriting signs that are held for two beats in the Irmologion to one beat plus a breath, in other cases adding a catch breath in time. All of these things are very similar to editorial choices that might be made in a Western choral score or hymnal (although I have had music directors at times say that such editorial decisions should be unnecessary for people who are actually good musicians).

At the same time, Chatzichronoglou has made choices in how he’s written this out that are more akin to the ornaments at the bottom of the page in the Carus-Verlag Messiah score above. One of the more obvious places where he does this is καὶ ἐδέξω ἐκ Θεοῦ, τὸν τῆς νίκης σου στέφανον, ὃν ἱκέτευε (third line picking up into the fourth line in the Irmologion score, fourth line into the beginning of the fifth line in Chatzichronoglou). I realize not everybody here is going to be able to read psaltic notation, so here’s a quick and dirty transcription of the first version:

kai edexw irmologion_0001

Which, as with Handel, probably isn’t how anybody would sing it, depending on one’s context; your teacher and your protopsaltis will tell you how they learned it.

Here’s how Chatzichronoglou analyzes it, more or less:

kai edexw chatzichronoglou_0001

Which is closer to how it usually gets sung, particularly at “ὃν ἱκέτευε”. One can see that the second one is an ornamentation of the structure of the first; it just comes down to a question of how you write it down, and that comes down to questions of pedagogy and tradition. Classical scores (in Western music as well, as we saw) tend to rely on the performance tradition being passed on by a teacher, whereas some modern editors are including (some might argue imposing) a layer of performance tradition in their scores. Your mileage may vary, but it’s important to be aware of the difference, to know which approach a given score is taking and what’s informing it. I should note that Chatzichronoglou gives a list of sources, for example, at the top of which is the Irmologion of Petros Peloponnesios, not that of Ioannis Protopsaltis, which doesn’t in fact make the list (but other books of Ioannis’ do). Petros’ Irmologion contains a version of this melody which is very different from Ioannis’, and which is also very different from what’s in Chatzichronoglou, reflecting a fairly wide variety of performance traditions where prosomoia are concerned (not entirely surprising for a practice that is largely an oral phenomenon — you’re not usually going to be looking at a score when you sing these). As with Western music, a teacher will help you navigate what kinds of choices to make where this is concerned.

Chatzichronoglou includes an introduction outlining his objectives for the volume that I will also translate, but as I’m already verging on 1500 words for the review, I’ll put that in a separate post.

Another contribution elsewhere

Just FYI — Fr. Andrew Damick invited me to contribute an essay to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog considering the points raised by this piece, and my essay was published this morning. Should you be coming here from Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, welcome. There’s a decent amount to read in the archives; oral exam prep and fatherhood have slowed my output down somewhat, but I still treat this blog as a going concern, so do please stick around.

“Always start out with a few good jokes” — a choir director’s initial and parting thoughts

I had my last rehearsal with the All Saints choir last night, and I gave a little bit of a farewell speech. I found some prepared notes from my very first rehearsal with the All Saints choir seven and a half years ago, and they still seemed relevant, if clearly pre-dating some things that I’ve learned in the intervening time. I prefaced all of this by mentioning that my favorite quote from my teaching evaluations this fall was, “Needs dumbed down”, which I find wonderful on several levels. Anyway, I didn’t read all of this last night, just some select chunks, but here’s the whole thing:

2 July 2005, All Saints Choir Rehearsal #1

Always start out with a few good jokes:

Music vocabulary—

Bar line: A gathering of people, usually among which may be found a church musician or two (usually Episcopalians).

Tenors: Most choirs have either a) none, or b) too many. When wholly absent they leave an aching void. When too numerous, they fill the void without removing the ache. Tenors rarely sing words and often produce regional sensations rather than actual notes. During the mating season, they draw attention to themselves by sustaining high notes while the rest of the choir has gone on with the phrase.

Seen in a church bulletin: “At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What is hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.

The Scriptures on singing in worship

Romans 15:9—And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.

1 Cor 14:15—What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Ephesians 5:19—Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

Colossians 3:16—Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Hebrews 2:12–Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

James 5:13—Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

The Church Fathers on singing in worship

“Let us consider the entire multitude of angels, how standing by you they minister to his will. For the Scripture says: ‘Ten thousand stood by him and a thousand ministered to him and cried out, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth, the whole creation is full of his glory.’ (Isaiah 6:3) Let us, therefore, gathered together in concord by conscience, cry out earnestly to Him as if with one voice, so that we might come to share in his great and glorious promises.” (St. Clement of Rome (c. 96 A.D.), First Epistle to the Corinthians, italics mine)

“…you make up a chorus, so that joined together in harmony, and having received the godly strain in unison, you might sing in one voice through Christ to the Father, so that He might hear you and recognize you through your good deeds as members of His Son…” (St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.), Epistle to the Ephesians, italics mine)

“We want to strive so that we, the many, may be brought together into one love, according to the union of the essential unity. As we do good may be similarly pursue unity….The union of many, which the divine harmony has called forth out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony, following the one leader of the choir and teacher, the Word, resting in that same truth and crying out, ‘Abba, Father.’” (St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D.), Protrepticus)

A modern Christian writer on singing in worship:

All quotes from Why Catholics can’t sing by Thomas Day.

“[T]he sung ritual [is] a symbol of a burning faith [...] The [sung] liturgy in any language [is] the symbol of faith so intense and filled with joy that it [has] to burst forth in almost continuous song.”

The Great Unwritten Law of Church Music: “[M]usic for the church must not clash with the liturgical function; it must take its place in the objective liturgical setting and not seem like an intrusion. [It] must display a degree of quality and craftsmanship which will be agreeable to a prince and peasant, male and female, young and old. Everyone who […] hears the music must sense a group endeavor, a group prayer: maybe something performed by the assembly or by a choir acting in the name of the assembly […] that seems to sum up the highest religious aspirations of a whole people. [T]he icon painters [pray] and [fast] as they [struggle] to put the holy images into the exacting forms prescribed by tradition. You must try to do something similar.”

Music in the Church is best when it “(1) expresses the noblest aspirations of the communal, cultural, tribal consciousness and (2) seems to submit to the higher purposes of the rite itself.”

So, what does this mean for us?

As an Orthodox choir, our job is not to sing one or two “anthems” or “offertories” at specific points in the service as in a Protestant church. Our job is to help the congregation sing the entire service. With a 90% sung liturgy lasting close to an hour and a half, that’s no small feat. We sing liturgical music, which means we sing the music that comes out of the work of the people (the literal meaning of “liturgy”) [NOTE, 21 Dec 2012: this is the main spot where obviously my thinking has changed, and I would find a different way of putting this today]. That means, simply put, our worship is work. Given our leadership role in the work, our job is not to be individuals who just happen to stand in a different place in the nave from everybody else; our job is to lead the rest of the congregation into the ideal of “one voice” in worship. By definition, to do this takes time, effort, and commitment to taking that leadership role seriously.

It also takes the choir functioning as a community within the community. From one perspective, the expectation is quite high: we’ve gotten up early so our voices haven’t completely woken up yet, and if we’re receiving the Eucharist we haven’t been able to do the normal things that help get the throat and vocal cords going the way they need to—drink water, coffee, tea, eat something, and so on—but we still have nearly an hour and a half worth of singing to do, more if we’re singing in the Matins service. The only way we can do that well, not to mention healthfully, is to support each other, personally and vocally, so that no one person in any section is carrying everybody else for the entire Divine Liturgy. What it takes is simply time, effort, and commitment from all who are willing to give it. It’s that difficult and that easy.

To that end: In consultation with Fr. Athanasius, while I am directing the choir, we will take the following steps:

1) Incorporate the choir into Saturday evening Vespers for the four-part portions of the service, and rehearse either before or after Vespers. We will try rehearsing after Vespers for the time being; we might very possibly try it before Vespers if it is found that this works better all around. I have deliberately scheduled the rehearsal around an already existing service, and I will never take up more than an hour of your time at any given rehearsal. Ideally, there will be rehearsals where my agenda for the evening will take up less time than that, and we will only continue through to the end of the hour if there is something that the group wishes to work on. These rehearsals will consist of a combination of vocal warm-ups, sight-singing warm-ups, announcements, polishing music we already know and learning new music. The balance of these various components will vary from week to week, based on the service requirements for that week and coming weeks.

2) Warm up as a group either at 9:35am on Sunday morning or after the Matins Gospel, whichever comes first. Starting Sunday, 17 July 2005 (that’s two weeks from now), this will be the skeletal minimum with respect to my expectation of you if you intend to sing that morning. If you cannot make a Saturday evening rehearsal at this time, then I absolutely need you to warm up with the group Sunday morning. For those of you who sing in the Matins service, we will devise a regular rotation so that one week you may finish out Matins, the next week you will warm up with the choir, and so on.

3) Gradually phase out the use of soloists for verses and replace them with unison chanting. We will talk about this more as we go, but for Psalm verses and whatnot, I would like to see an alternating “left choir/right choir” approach, where perhaps the women sing one verse, the men sing the next verse, etc. We will experiment with this over time to see how it best works with this group. The vocal and acoustic circumstances are simply not ideal for solo voices, and where it is practical to use an ensemble, we will.

I will also do the following:

1) Put out a calendar outlining rehearsals and services coming up a month out (perhaps two months out, if I find that it’s necessary). If you know you won’t be at a rehearsal or a service, please sign out on the calendar. Additionally, if you plan to attend a service or a rehearsal, should something happen at the last minute preventing your attendance please call me or e-mail me as soon as you possibly can so that I know what to expect for that rehearsal or service. I offer you all the same courtesy—if something happens to me, I will let you all know as soon as I possibly can.

2) Make myself available for work outside of regularly scheduled rehearsals and services. For example—if you need help with something musically, want extra sight-singing practice, if the tenor section needs extra help and wants a section rehearsal, if you need to talk to me about something privately, or if you just want to chat, please give me a call or send me an e-mail and we will find time to do so.

3) Make rehearsals as fun as I possibly can. I want you all to want to come to rehearsal, not feel like you have to come, which in my experience will only ensure that you want to come even less. I want our rehearsals to be a friendly, positive working environment, because I think we’ll all get more done that way.

My final point for now is this: a no is as good as a yes, as far as I’m concerned. If, after hearing all of this, you are thinking to yourself, “He’s going to have to count me out,” that’s fine. I’m not mad at you, and neither is anybody else. What I ask, however, is that you not make a snap judgment now. I ask that you give it some time to see how it will work—perhaps you’ll surprise yourself.

I believe this is a group who is capable of a lot. If we can commit to putting in the time and the effort, and remember that this is not about us but about the glorification of God, I believe we will be able to accomplish a lot.

Okay, I’m done talking now. Let’s sing.

I also mentioned some passages from +BASIL’s essay, “The Ministry of Church Singers”. I think parts of this have to be contextualized as a bishop being pastoral and pious, but there are nonetheless some things he says unequivocally:

There are few ministries of the Church that require the devotion and the dedication that church singing does. You who lead the singing as well as you who follow the leader are precious gifts to your parishes. You are as important to the parish as is the holy table itself. As there can be no liturgy without the holy table, there can be no liturgy without you. This is not to compliment you or increase your pride, but rather to put a little fear and awe in you, so you know what your responsibilities are. Church singing is not a hobby. Being a choir director is not something one does for personal fulfillment. It is first and foremost a duty, a duty of those to whom God has given musical talents. It is sinful, in my opinion, for someone not to sing who has been given the gift to sing. Sinful! You join the angels, and do that which the angels do perpetually. That’s not an interest, avocation, or a hobby; it is a duty. Angels were created to serve and to praise, and you have been given voices for that same purpose.

[...] It’s a holiness. It’s not your ministry. It’s a ministry that belongs to the Church, and you respond to the call as well as recognize that the gift which you specifically fulfill in the church was, traditionally, and in some sense still is, an ordained ministry. The choir was not some club that existed in Church for those with some particular musical talent. To be a church singer was an ordained office within the Church. Canon 15, from the Council of Nicea, the Council of the 4th century, makes its point clear that only canonical singers should be appointed for that kind of ministry in the Church. That means “one set apart” for that particular ministry. Today we might call them Readers. While I’m not saying that every choir member must be a tonsured Reader, I do say that if we fulfill at least the spirit, if not the law of the Canon, that each choir member ought to see his/her participation in the choir as seriously as the ordained clergy take their ministry. I don’t know any priest who thinks that he can say on some Sunday, “I don’t want to serve because I want to sit with my wife,” or, “I don’t feel like serving today,” or, “I’m angry, one of the altar boys offended me, so I don’t want to serve this morning.”

[...] We jump in and we jump out. Some of us jump in on time and some of us jump in a little bit late. In my opinion, being in church for that first “Amen” is a sign, an indication of one’s humility. And where humility is, indeed, a virtue, its opposite is a sin. The sin is not disturbing other people. The other people in the church are not the object of our worship. It is rude, but not necessarily sinful, to disturb other people. But it is sinful to be presumptuous and prideful that one can jump in and sing with thousands of archangels and ten-thousands of angels at one’s own whim. “This Sunday I feel like singing, and next Sunday I won’t sing. I want to sit with my wife.” Leave that Hallmark—card kind of sentimentality for restaurants, concerts, and cinemas. You sing with angels, that’s secondary to sitting with any husband or wife or children. We stand before the throne of God, and when we realize that, every other consideration, all of our own personal likes and dislikes, become secondary. I’m giving my opinion now, and hopefully it humbles all of us. It’s a humiliation, that in its end, should be something that elevates us, that exalts us, something that gives us wing.

[...] You and your choir need be as aesthetically perfect as you are able. God not only expects, but He accepts only our best.

As I said to the choir last night, I’m a convert, not a cradle, and every convert brings with them some baggage from their previous experience. My background is one that places a high value on liturgical beauty and music, and that value is practical, not just theoretical. Church music is a profession. It is not unheard-of for church musicians in my former communion to have terminal degrees and to have half-time, if not full-time, salaries. While I have always known that such a set of circumstances would never even come close to being reality at All Saints, I have always tried to fulfill the musical function at All Saints as though those were the expectations of me — and I should stress the “of me” part, because certainly the point was never to turn the All Saints choir into an opera chorus. Rather, the point was that, if I was excited about what I did and took it seriously in the way +BASIL describes, hopefully everybody else would catch the spark, too, and get excited about it along with me. It was an experiment to see if one could build a fully-functioning music ministry at the only Orthodox parish in a town that was home to a Big Ten university and one of the best schools of music in the country. I’m happy that the experiment has borne fruit, even if it won’t specifically be attached to the parish anymore. All told, this (as well as the ongoing annotation and discussion of it here) represents a pretty good snapshot of my thinking of how the effort worked, and how I would approach such a project if I were to start afresh now.

Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἔνεκεν. As always, we’ll see what happens next. I thank All Saints, Fr. Peter, and those who sang with me for the chance to serve over the years, I hope that I was able to communicate some small element of what I love about our Church’s music despite all of my own faults and foibles, and I wish all of them, as well as whomever my successor will be, many blessings. Again, I crave your prayers for myself and my family as we make this transition.

Review and a mini-interview: Dr. Sam Cohlmia, Byzantine Chants to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos

Blogging has been light the last couple of months for what I hope are obvious reasons. The new school year starts up the week after next, so we’re all going to have to start making the adjustment back to the normal swing of things soon, so hopefully I can catch up then on some posts I’d intended to write over the summer but didn’t. (Of course, there’s also the matter of qualifying exams needing to happen sometime in the next twelve months.)


In the meantime, Dr. Sam Cohlmia, protopsaltis of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and the Midwest as well as St. George Cathedral in Wichita, was kind enough to send me a review copy of his new recording, Byzantine Chants to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos. It contains many of the festal hymns for the Feast of the Dormition, with Dr. Cohlmia as solo cantor throughout (and providing his own isokratima via the miracle of modern recording technology).

The disc is fairly evenly split between English and Arabic, with Dr. Cohlmia using the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Menaion for most (not quite all) of the metered hymns (prosomoia), and Nassar (apparently modified in spots) for the non-metered hymns as well as the stichera at the Praises. In terms of musical sources, Dr. Cohlmia is using Arabic scores by composers such as Mitri El Murr and Andraos Mouaikel, and adapting those into English himself. The melodies for the Lamentations are a bit of a puzzlement to me — not necessarily on this disc, but in general — since what’s sung here represents the third set of permutations that I have been told are the “authentic” Antiochian melodies, so I’m not sure what that means.

There is a great deal to like on this disc; Dr. Cohlmia has a clear and lovely voice, and handles the vocal requirements of both languages nicely. Although Lebanese-born, his sung English diction is excellent, and all the texts sound smooth and natural throughout. He is able to bring a good sense of style to the presentation; while his approach as a solo cantor makes for a different realization of “Antiochian style” than one hears on, say, The Voice of the Lord (which represents the chant tradition of the Patriarchate of Antioch applied to an English-language choral context), the two recordings clearly share and are honoring the same heritage. That said, some of the differences in approach are evident in spots where the recordings are using the same melody — for example, in the Kathismata for both feasts, the nenano melody “Κατεπλάγη Ἰωσήφ” (“Joseph was amazed” in the HTM books) is employed, and the contrast between the choral and solo realizations is subtle, but interesting.

One thing that both recordings do that’s particularly nice for learning purposes is proper use of metered model hymns. This is a system that can be a bit opaque for cantors who are having to cut their teeth in the Antiochian Archdiocese; neither Kazan nor Nassar make note of their use, Nassar is unmetered anyway, and Kazan just writes them out and shoehorns the texts into them without telling the singer that that’s what’s happening. For metered translations one must turn to the Holy Transfiguration Monastery books, which seems to have something of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” status in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and which also aren’t complete outside of the Menaion. A metered Octoechos doesn’t appear to exist, neither does a metered Triodion, and the Pentecostarion has been being revised and “due any day now” for several years. Even if you have metered texts, however, sources for the melodies are tricky. HTM’s book of melodies is a bit idiosyncratic in terms of musical material, and while Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ is better in terms of being better-grounded in “classical” sources (like the Irmologion of John the Protopsaltis), it’s harder to use with the HTM books because the melody titles are different — sometimes marginally so, sometimes significantly so — and the translations are idiosyncratic. It’s better, frankly, to just learn Byzantine notation and learn the model melodies out of the Irmologion, but then there’s the problem of not getting the sung tradition in addition to the notated tradition. There’s this site, and the recordings are instructive, but not exactly stellar. All of this is to say, Dr. Cohlmia’s recording, as with the Theophany School disc, provides an English-language model for realizing a nice little handful of the model melodies realized with metered translations, and that makes it useful as well as enjoyable and prayerful to listen to. I’m not clear as to why he doesn’t use the metered translation for the stichera at the Praises, and the model melody is quite a bit different from the one that’s in the Greek books (“Ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, “As one valiant”), but the others employed are wonderfully practical learning tools.

Anyway, I’d love to get Dr. Cohlmia and Rassem El Massih in the same church at some point for a Liturgy, and perhaps I will. The CD can be purchased through the Wichita Chancery (details here).

I also present Dr. Cohlmia’s responses to some follow-up questions that he was good enough to take the time to answer. I find them very illuminating, and I appreciate the perspective he brings to the table. I will be curious to hear what others think.

1) How were you trained as a cantor?

I self-trained beginning in 1991 out of interest.  Being born in Beirut and going to church there and being exposed to excellent chanting, it was relatively easy for me to understand the melodies, since several of them are derived from the 11 basic Oriental melodies, such as Hijaz (Tone 6), Nahawand (Tone 5), Bayyat (Tone 1), and so on.  I was not formally trained to become a chanter, but simply practiced constantly.

2) For this recording, did you sing off of notated scores, or did you just have texts that you knew how to sing from memory? If notated scores, did you use staff notation or Byzantine notation?

I wrote the music for the entire Orthros service of the feast of the Dormition (in Western notations).  For some of those pieces of music, I simply transcribed the Byzantine notations from Mitri Murr’s arrangements in Arabic to Western notations in English.

3) How do you approach chanting in English differently from how you approach chanting in Arabic or Greek?

Chanting in English is rather tricky when compared to doing the same in Arabic or Greek.  In English, you have to be extremely careful with the pronunciation of the various syllables in addition to the lack of enough vowels makes chanting challenging.  In Arabic, especially, there are lots of vowels, and generally it is easy to chant words without placing particular emphasis on specific syllables (that’s simply a general statement, of course).

4) Do you have a sense of how Byzantine chant in the Patriarchate of Antioch is distinct from, say, under the Church of Greece or the Ecumenical Patriarchate? How do you see how you chant as being different from how a Greek cantor might approach it, if at all?

Overall, Arabic Byzantine chant in our patriarchate differs, in my opinion, than Greek Byzantine chant in the ecumenical patriarchate.  To me, Arabic chanting is certainly more melodic and, horizontal (if you will) than Greek chanting, which at times sounds choppy.  It simply flows better and sounds more soothing, although Greek chanting is very beautiful.  My chanting style is certainly more based on the Arabic, as I use Mitri Murr’s and Fr. Nicholas Malek’s arrangements as a guideline.  I do also have Protopsaltis Kharilaos Taliadoros’ anastasimatarion (in Greek), and it is beautiful, but not as melodic as the Arabic arragements.  The arrangements of Mitri Murr, and Fr. Malek (new arrangements), truly bring the words to life, as the music is written to mirror the words.  His work is very brilliant.

5) In week-to-week services at the Cathedral, what materials do you use? Are you using the chant books of Mitri El-Murr for Arabic, for example, or something else? What do you use for English? Kazan/Nassar? Or something else?

I put together the Typikon Notes from the Arabic and Greek Typikon each week for the Sunday services.  The text that I use is a combination of that from Nassar’s book as well as the HTM Menaion.  At times, if the text does not exist, and it is called for in the Typikon, I simply translate it into English.  So, we basically use the book of Nassar, HTM Menaion, HTM Pentecostarion, +Kallistos Ware’s Lenten Triodion, to name a few.  For chanting purposes, we use the Byzantine music project put out by the Archdiocese (for English) and Mitri Murr’s work (for Arabic).  Rarely would I use Taliadoros’ anastasimatarion (for Greek) unless there are Greek parishoners at Vespers or Orthros.

6) What’s your sense of how Kazan/Nassar have represented and transmitted Antiochian tradition for English-language Orthodox Christians? What could be better? What would you hate to see changed?

Kazan’s music, like any other individual’s music, is one representation of Byzantine chant.  It is certainly very simplistic, but good enough for the minimally trained or unfamiliar chanter.  Most “chanters” in the US are not true chanters, but singers instead, so that music works fine for them.  In my opinion, true chanters need to fully learn Byzantine music.  As far as Nassar’s book, it is alright for the most part, although there are a few mis-interpretations, where the English could be better.  The best work is HTM’s Menaion and Pentecostarion, since the interpretation in extremely accurate and the special melodies are perfectly metered.  As far as what I would hate to see changed, I would hate to see the Church lose its Antiochian tradition.  I would hate to see the music being watered down from the original humble Byzantine to the more dramatic and grandiose choral.  Don’t get me wrong.  The church needs the two, but there needs to be more emphasis on Byzantine chant, because it seems that it gets put on the back-burner at times.  Furthermore, chanters need to learn Byzantine chanting and music, in addition to preserving some of the Arabic used in the church (depending on the individual church).

7) What’s the future of Byzantine chant in our Archdiocese, as you see it?

Hopefully the same if not better.  I would like to see emphasis on Byzantine chanting at the various seminaries (not just Holy Cross), as well as Byzantine courses being offered for ALL chanters.  Any person who plans to approach the Psaltyrion to chant needs to have a good education on Byzantine chanting, which hopefully could be learned at some Byzantine school or course of some kind.

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.

Byzantine chant in The Word

In the current issue of The Word one may find an article on Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born cantor in the Antiochian archdiocese and a current student at Holy Cross. I reviewed the CD the article mentions back when it first came out, and I also met Rassem on my trip out there back in February. While I didn’t get to chant with him, I found him to be a great person to talk to and I enjoyed getting to know him very much, however briefly. It’s great to see that his star might be on the rise. I should note, as per a discussion going on in the comments of a recent post, that Dr. Grammenos Karanos, a supposed exemplar of “Patriarchal style”, is quoted with very strongly positive words about Rassem, who is steeped in the “patriarchal style” of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

By the way: I’d link directly to the article instead of quoting it in full, but the online version of The Word is distributed only in pdf form. An article of mine that ran in The Word I’ve seen reproduced in full on church websites, so I assume I’m doing nothing untoward here, particularly since I’m not making any money off of it and the Archdiocese distributes The Word to its membership for free. In any event, copyright is acknowledged as belonging to the Archdiocese and authorship is acknowledged as being that of Linda M. Thomas.

Rassem El Massih: A Voice of the Faithful

by Linda M. Thomas

Thousands of miles from the tiny church where he first began to chant, the pure and powerful voice of Rassem El Massih rings out in prayer. The first cantor at St. George Orthodox Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, embraced Byzantine music from the time he was a small boy growing up in a town called Anfeh, on the coast of north Lebanon. Today his voice and spiritual presence are felt during Vespers service at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, as well as Sunday mornings in nearby West Roxbury.

On October 26, 2009, El Massih led the choir at UN prayer services presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW, Archbishop of Constantinople, at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity of the Greek Archdiocese.

Last December, El Massih and four other seminarians from Holy Cross were invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The concert honored St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero, the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, and in thanksgiving for the announcement of its rebuilding.

“Rassem’s voice is beautiful,” said His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan PHILIP, Primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, who said he was “edified” listening to the first-ever Byzantine music concert at Carnegie Hall.

“When he chants, it sounds like a nightingale. His voice is very soothing to the soul and to the heart. Sometimes he is as gentle and soft as an evening summer breeze,” the Metropolitan said of El Massih. “Sometimes he roars like a waterfall.”

Whether he’s chanting inside a celebrated arena like Carnegie Hall or a small, out-of-the-way monastery, however, the thirty-one-year-old divinity student says he feels the same: “My goal is to praise God regardless where I am.”

Drawn to Sacred Music

“I was a very shy and quiet boy who was drawn to church and, specifically, its sacred music,” El Massih said. “After school, I would eat, then try to finish my homework as fast as I could, so I could listen to Byzantine chant. I definitely also wanted to play with my friends, like any other boy my age, but church was as important to me as playing with my friends.”

He began chanting in churches and in school when he was nine. Seeking to perfect his voice, he enrolled at the School of Byzantine Music of the Archdiocese of Tripoli and El-Koura, while at the same time directing the choir of Our Lady of Al- Natour Monastery, a serene sanctuary on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea just outside Anfeh.

“Anything they taught me, I would say, ‘You  don’t have to repeat the melody for me twice.’ Boom. I got it,” he recalled. “Because I was so in love with it, I would do anything to memorize it. I spent hours and hours practicing.”

In 2002 El Massih came with his family to the United States and settled in Boston. At the time, his parents spoke no English, so El Massih got a job to help support them and his two younger sisters while still a full-time student. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies and a minor in human development from Hellenic College in 2010. Currently he is a graduate student at Holy Cross Seminary, and hopes to receive a degree of Master of Divinity in May 2013.

In his 33 years as a priest, said Very Rev. Father Timothy Ferguson, pastor of the West Roxbury parish where El Massih and his family are parishioners, he has not heard Byzantine tonation (or music) of the quality he now hears on a regular basis. “Rassem’s voice is a natural gift of that music – a God-given talent,” he said. “He teaches others and he’s gracious about sharing his talent.”

“He is one of the best cantors in the country,” said El Massih’s teacher, Grammenos Karanos, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. “He is also one of few people who can perform chant in three languages [Greek, Arabic and English], and may very well be the best at this in the United States.”

In addition to school, work and teaching Byzantine chant, El Massih has produced CDs. He directed a choir of nine for “The Voice of the Lord,” a compilation of hymns from the Feast of Theophany chanted in English with traditional Byzantine melodies.

“When you love something; you want to give it all you can,” El Massih explained. “You have to practice so in the end you focus not on ‘How am I going to read this musical piece?’ but ‘How am I going to pray?’ How will this piece help me pray, understand the words, live the words – and feel the words?”

“Maybe I’ll end up giving a nice performance,” he reflected, “but when I chant on a piece, I am not focusing anymore on the music, I’m just singing from my heart – I’m contemplating the words … I’m living the words while I’m chanting.”


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