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The Voice of the Lord: Selected Hymns from the Feast of Theophany

Yesterday I came to home to an unexpected surprise: a complimentary copy of The Voice of the Lord: Selected Hymns from the Feast of Theophany, a new recording of Byzantine chant in English dedicated to the memory of Sonia Belcher. Sonia was a dear friend of my priest and his family, and when she passed last February, Fr. Peter spoke about her quite a bit. This CD is quite the labor of love, to say the least, and proceeds from it will go to support The Theophany School in Boston, an Orthodox Christian school which began largely as a result of Sonia’s effort and perseverance.

The collaborators on the project are impressive, to say the least. Hieromonk Ephraim of St. Anthony’s Monastery (aka “Papa Ephraim”) composed the English-language versions of the hymns specifically for the recording (music found here under the entry for Theophany, 6 January); the protopsaltis is Rassem El Massih, a graduate of the Archdiocese of Tripoli’s School of Byzantine Music, and the choir roster is a who’s who of the new generation of Byzantine cantors in AOCNA — including Gregory Abdalah, Basil Crow, Jamil Samara, and Khalil Samara. Dn. Nicholas, Sonia’s husband, is also a part of the ensemble. As the notes say, the goal was to produce a recording of traditionally chanted Byzantine hymns re-composed for the English music, and specifically in the style idiomatic to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

I’ve only listened to it all the way through a couple of times thus far, but my initial impressions are that the result of their efforts is top-drawer through and through. The ensemble sings together beautifully and is very well-coordinated; the English diction is clear as a bell, and hearing the melodies match the English texts as well as they do is very refreshing. The liner notes do a moving job of telling the reader who Sonia is and just why she inspired both the recording project as a whole as well as this particular repertoire.

One curious thing I’ll note is that, as good as the English diction is — compare, for example, with the Mt. Lebanon Choir — the kind of sound the ensemble produces made my ear expect Arabic when I first popped in the disc. It took about ten seconds for me to be able to “hear” the English; when I listened to it a second time, I couldn’t believe that I’d had a problem in the first place. Go figure.

I’d like to thank Basil Crow and Khalil Samara for sending me the disc, and all involved for contributing a fine example of what traditional Byzantine chant can sound like when sung well in English. I’d like to encourage anybody who knew Sonia, or who might be interested in Byzantine chant or Orthodox Christian education, to buy this CD; it’s a more than worthy effort, and a more than worthy cause.

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