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Posts Tagged 'alexander lingas'

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.

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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.

Review: Cappella Romana’s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Having mused on some of the issues in the background of Cappella Romana‘s new recording, Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, now allow me actually to review the disc.

In 1991, Tikey Zes published a score titled The Choral Music for Mixed Voices for the Divine Liturgy that was intended to be more or less “complete” (with some abbreviations customary in West Coast parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America), with all eight Resurrectional apolytikia, the Antitrisagia (“As many as have been baptized”, “Before your cross”), variants for a Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, several patronal apolytikia for parishes, as well as variants for a hierarchical service. Although up to this point Zes had relied primarily on John Sakellarides’ simplifications of Byzantine melodies as his source material, for this setting he composed his own melodies, employing a variety of polyphonic textures and different kinds of counterpoint as well. The express intent, according to the CD’s booklet, is a musical style that is less a harmonized melody and is rather polyphonic in the sense that one typically means when describing Renaissance music. The score also uses organ accompaniment, but principally to accompany unison vocal lines and only occasionally being used independently of the choir.

Cappella Romana gave Zes’ score its concert debut in 1992, prompting him to revise and expand it in 1996, with the new edition dedicated to the ensemble. It is this new edition that Cappella presents on the recording; they have supposed the second Sunday after Pentecost, when the Resurrectional cycle of modes will have reset to the First Mode — the first so-called “vanilla Sunday” since before the Lenten cycle began — and they have also included the apolytikion for St. Nicholas in the place of the parish’s patronal troparion (Zes’ home church is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose, California). As with previous Divine Liturgy recordings, they present a good deal of the liturgical context, with the celebrant’s and deacon’s parts here presented by, respectively, Fr. John Bakas of St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles (and who, coincidentally, is discussed at some length in this post from last week) and Fr. John Kariotakis of St. John the Baptist Church in Anaheim, California; in addition, parishioners of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Oregon are featured reciting the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Some things are abbreviated; unlike The Divine Liturgy in English, the 2008 Byzantine chant release, there is not the luxury of a double-disc treatment. Nonetheless, the presentation goes to some pains to be something other than another recording of disconnected, individual pieces of music; rather, this is a Divine Liturgy that happens to be using Zes’ score.

Let’s be clear: the music isn’t “Byzantine music”, and both Zes and the choir are well aware of this (despite a comment in the booklet that is easily misunderstood, and I’ll come back to that). My previous post covered just what the implications are of that, and I suggested that Greek American polyphonic choral music might better be understood as cousin of rebetiko — that is, a folk repertoire that comes into its own in a context of emigration. That’s one aspect, perhaps, of what Zes is doing, although he is elevating it considerably; this is maybe the equivalent of somebody writing a bouzouki concerto. He is taking the music he knows from the context of the Greek American choir loft — Desby and Sakellarides and so on — and re-articulating the ethos in the musical language of an artistic high point in Western sacred music. It’s as though the Byzantines who fled to Venice eventually managed to capture the attention of Monteverdi and convince him to convert and compose for the Orthodox Church — which, again, fits pretty well with the idea of a repertoire of émigrés (although I may be stretching the notion beyond its utility).

That isn’t to say that there’s something self-conscious about how Zes uses polyphony. I don’t get the impression that he’s saying, “Hey, let’s imagine what would happen if Italian Renaissance composers wrote music for the Divine Liturgy.” I rather get the idea of a very gifted and highly-skilled composer asking, no more and no less, “What’s going to be the best that I’m able to do for the service of the Church, and what’s going to be the most fitting musical vocabulary that I know how to use for such a project?” (I refer you back to my previous post for the arguments over whether or not that’s an appropriate question to ask in the first place; I’m reviewing the recording on its own terms.) The result does not sound like Tikey Zes “doing” Palestrina or Monteverdi; at least as sung by Cappella Romana, it just sounds like beautiful church music.

Now, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea if any churches use this particular score liturgically. Obviously lots of GOA parishes use Zes’ music (for that matter, so do Antiochian parishes), but I don’t know how commonly used this particular setting is. The disc suggests that the choir that could sing it properly would certainly be a luxury ensemble; while the responses and shorter hymns are kept simple, the liturgical high points are when Zes does not shy away from gilding the things he loves. I’m trying to imagine the parish choir that could sing the longer hymns like the Trisagion or the Cherubikon, both absolutely glorious pieces of choral writing, without it being an overreach. Which brings me to the one thing I’ll say in terms of the whole organ/choir question in this review — if I close my eyes and imagine the church in which I would hear this liturgy being sung, it’s King’s College Chapel with a dome and iconostasis. This is not necessarily a bad thing, musically — in fact, I’d go so far as to say, if you’re going to go the organ/choir route, if that’s really the aesthetic you want to embrace, then you need to do it at least as well as it’s done on this recording. Yes, my consultant was quite right, Cappella Romana does sing Zes’ music like it’s Palestrina — but that also sounds like that’s exactly how it’s written to be sung. If that means the sound is like Anglican choirs singing in Greek instead of Latin or Elizabethan English — well, fine, then, so be it. Run with it. But do it well. Because if you can’t sing it at least this well, then there’s no point in using it. If you’re going to use luxury repertoire like this in your parish choir, then your parish choir better be able to fight its weight. Otherwise it isn’t going to be pleasant experience for anybody, and it will be a distraction in church, drawing attention to itself by virtue of being badly done.

Now, maybe, this score could be said to be like the Rachmaninoff All-night Vigil, which was written as a concert piece but occasionally gets broken out for liturgical use for special occasions. I will say that the Fathers John, as the celebrant and deacon, are both exceptional singers, and the net effect of the two of them plus Cappella Romana is not unlike a Bach Passion, with the celebrant and deacon perhaps in the Evangelist role. That is, there is a sense of the Divine Liturgy-as-drama with what the two clergy bring to their “roles”, so to speak, with the choral ensemble commenting on the liturgical action. Lord knows there has been sufficient analysis of the Great Entrance alone as a “dramatic” moment that maybe that’s not altogether uncalled-for; what I would say is, if you’re going to go for that, make sure you have forces at the altar and in the choir loft that can actually do it.

I said earlier that this isn’t “Byzantine music”; the booklet might seem to suggest otherwise, with the very last sentence of Alexander Lingas’ essay apparently referring to the score as “thoroughly Byzantine”. However, Lingas is not here referring to musical style or compositional technique. He is by no means offering a psaltic apologia for Zes, arguing that the music is, in fact, actually in continuity with Byzantine chant if we would just listen to it the right way. He can be doing no such thing, since this very last section of the essay is his analysis of how thoroughly un-Byzantine the music is, with its imitative and invertible counterpoint, for example. The observation that Lingas is making is that, in spite of musical discontinuity with the received tradition that we have that is in continuity with Byzantine music, it is clear that Zes is re-articulating the ethos of the Byzantine aesthetic in a Western musical language. Zes, in other words, while he is using a different musical language than Byzantine music, is nonetheless bringing considerable technical skill to bear, using counterpoint and polyphony and organ to ornament and to expand and to demonstrate virtuosity where Byzantine music ornaments and expands and demonstrates virtuosity.

(Something that I think would be very informative would be a composers’ master class, where somebody like Ioannis Arvanitis and somebody like Tikey Zes could do a detailed analysis of their own settings of the same texts with the other person, to demonstrate explicitly for an audience as well as for each other just where the points of continuity are as well as the points of divergence. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to do something like that here.)

To make a brief point relating this disc to my previous two posts — I got the following comment in a note from a friend of mine about the Zes recording: “[…]it might actually be the most ‘American’ setting…with influences from various cultures (eastern and Western Europe like our own culture here), organ etc. the irony of course is that it’s not even in English.” Looked at from a standpoint of what we might call “acculturation” or cultural adaptation, then, yes, I’d agree — and even the retention of Greek is, in its own way, a very American thing to do, since we like to emphasize and privilege our “pre-American” heritage, even in — perhaps especially in — an American context. At the same time, going by Fr. Oliver’s analysis, then the impulse to “restore” Byzantine chant is also a very “American” thing to do, given our “restorationist” tendencies.

It is telling to me that Cappella Romana has dedicated a total of four discs over the last five years to recordings that present more-or-less complete settings of the Divine Liturgy — the 2-disc set The Divine Liturgy in English for Byzantine chant, and then the Michaelides and Zes recordings. All three of these releases strike me as “pastoral projects”, as attempts to change the game in terms of the ideal of sound that’s thought of as possible — Byzantine chant in English? Yes, it can be done perfectly well in English in a way that’s still perfectly acceptable Byzantine chant, and here’s how good it can sound, too. Greek American polyphony? Yes, actually, here’s some music in that genre you’re probably not doing that you should at least think about (the Michaelides), and here’s how the really good stuff by the composer you all say you like could sound.

All of this is to say, Zes’ score is a remarkable piece of sacred choral composition on its own terms, and Cappella Romana is up to its usual high standards in terms of presentation of it. I don’t mean “presentation” to only mean singing; it’s an extraordinarily well-sung recording by all involved. Rather, the care to use the recording as the opportunity to make the case for what its liturgical use could sound like (I hesitate to use the word “should”) is also remarkable, and a hallmark of the recording. Another hallmark of the release is an exceptionally informative booklet that provides the Greek and English text of the Divine Liturgy, as well as Lingas’ essay positioning Zes’ music in the context of Byzantine music, Orthodox music more generally, and Greek emigration to the United States. Again, I will leave the argument over whether or not it “should” be used liturgically, or even recorded by an ensemble by Cappella Romana for that matter, to others in other settings; I find it to be a worthy recording of some exceptionally beautiful music composed by a man who sincerely wants to give the best of what he has, and judge it on those terms.

A word about Cappella Romana’s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom before I review it

“Although there now exist polyphonic choral settings of the Divine Liturgy by composers representing nearly the full cultural spectrum of Eastern Orthodoxy,” writes Cappella Romana‘s Artistic Director Alexander Lingas in the liner notes of their new recording, Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom,

those produced by Greek American composers remain little known. Indeed, Orthodox Christians from Europe or the Middle East visiting Greek Orthodox churches of the United States are frequently surprised or even scandalized to hear the Sunday Divine Liturgy sung not by cantors employing Byzantine chant, but by a mixed choir singing harmonized or polyphonic music that is often accompanied by an organ. Viewed from such an outside perspective, Greek American liturgical choral music would seem to be little more than a peculiar — or, as some critics of polyphony would maintain, an ill-judged and extreme — instance of inculturation. While there can be little doubt that ideologies promoting cultural adaptation (or even assimilation) to prevailing cultural norms have influenced the development of liturgical singing in Greek America, emphasis on these aspects of its history can all to easily lead to facile dismissals that ignore its many complexities of provenance and expression.

Wow, that’s a mouthful for a CD booklet, isn’t it? And yet, there it is. As one tasked with reviewing this particular disc, I feel that I must unpack this a bit to give the recording proper context for people who may not be familiar with the issues to which Lingas refers. This is going to be rather subjective and impressionistic, but I think it all has to be said before I can write my review.

Who gets the final say of what constitutes what something “should” sound like? What is “authenticity”? What’s “authentically” American? What’s “authentically” Orthodox? What’s “authentically” “authentic tradition” or, more specifically, “authentic sacred music”? Can something be “authentic” to the “lived experience” of some Orthodox but not others? How do you work out the question of the authority to resolve such questions? We can appeal to Tradition — but interpreted by whom? Is it up to bishops? Bishops can be wrong. Is it up to musicians? Musicians can be wrong. Is it up to “the people”, whatever we mean by that? “The people” can be wrong. How do you deal with change within a rubric of Tradition so that you are neither unnecessarily reactionary nor unnecessarily innovative?

These questions are vexing for Orthodox Christians in this country. I didn’t really understand just how vexing when I first started attending services; I had initially thought that Orthodox musical issues were largely free of strife. (Stop laughing. Seriously.) I came from a high church, or at least sacramental and liturgical, Protestant setting where the jockeying was over pride of place in the  schedule between the spoken service, the “contemporary” service, and the organ-and-choir service. The church where I was going had had the music-free service at 8:30am, the praise band service at 10am, and then the organ-and-choir service at 11:15, and the demographics basically amounted to the blue-hairs (and the Barretts) going to the 11:15 service and all the young/youngish middle/upper-class families going to the 10am service. (All of the really old people went to the quiet service.) The priest really favored the 10am service, and the musicians who played for that service were the ones who had his ear; the organist and the choir were rather treated as a necessary evil at best by most of the 10am crowd (I remember that the guy who led the praise band wouldn’t even say “hi” to people in the choir if our paths were to cross), and in all fairness, the organist tended to act like the praise band people were in the way. (Which, again in all fairness, from her perspective, they kind of were, with amplifiers and instruments obstructing traffic patterns for the choir if they were left out.) It really meant that there were two different church communities, and you were defined by which service you attended. (Ironically, as much as the 10am people thought the 11:15am people were snooty dinosaurs, the 11:15am service was really pretty “contemporary”-feeling in retrospect, or at least pretty low-church. As somebody who had been confirmed in more of a high-church context, my Anglo-Catholic instincts tended to be smiled at but ignored.)

In 2004, my second year in the School of Music at IU, I was asked to write a set of program notes for a choral performance I was singing in of Gretchianinoff’s setting of the All-Night Vigil, outlining the liturgical context of the service. I did the best I could with what I thought I knew at the time, and I included the following discussion of the a cappella tradition within Orthodoxy:

Historically, instruments have no place in Orthodox worship; organs are a recent development in some Greek parish churches in the United States, but those are generally examples of communities that have moved into pre-existing buildings that already had organs, and then simply adapted to what was there.

My first glimpse into just what disagreements there could be over Orthodox church music was when Vicki Pappas, the then-National Chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, came to the Gretchianinoff concert. She talked to me about the notes afterward and said, “Very good on the whole, Richard, but that’s just not true about organs. Greeks love their organs, and have built many churches with the intent of having them.” That seemed quite contrary to what I had been told up to that point about a cappella singing being normative, and I wasn’t clear on where the disconnect was. Little did I know.

Last year, the Saint John of Damascus Society was asked to write a script for an hourlong special on Orthodox Christmas music that would have been aired on NPR. I wrote the script, but for various reasons the full program shrunk down to a segment on Harmonia instead. Anyway, as I was writing the segment and assembling the program for it, one of the people I was consulting with objected to Cappella Romana‘s recordings being used for some of the contemporary Greek-American polyphonic composers like Tikey Zes. “They sing Tikey’s music like it’s Palestrina,” this person told me. “Real Greek Orthodox choirs don’t sound like that. Let me get you some more representative recordings.” The problem, though, was that the recordings this person preferred weren’t really up to broadcast quality. They were more “authentic” to this person’s experience of how the music is used in church, but they were problematic to use in a setting where one needed to put the best foot forward.

Coming from an Anglican background, this struck me as an odd criticism, and it still does. My church choir in Bellevue didn’t sound anything like the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge, but I would certainly rather give somebody a King’s CD if I wanted them to get an idea of what Anglican music sounds like rather than get an ambient recording of a service of my old choir. Is it representative of what it “really” sounds like? Is it representative of what it should sound like? I can’t definitively answer either question, but it’s the ideal of sound I have in my ear for that repertoire. Whether or not the average parish choir sounds like that isn’t really the point. Still, that’s an argument that doesn’t satisfy the “lived experience” criterion.

At the same time, the presence of robed choirs and organs means that there’s some jostling that happens with people for whom the Orthodox Church’s traditional repertoire is chant, period, with opinions strongly held on both sides. There’s the issue that the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued an edict in 1846 forbidding the liturgical use of polyphonic music, and I don’t think that anybody denies that this exists, but it seems to me that there’s a good deal of disagreement about just what it means for American congregations in 2013. In any event, the fact that Orthodoxy still usually follows the one-Eucharist-per-altar-per-day canon means that you can’t split a church community along musical lines exactly, but nonetheless the solution in a lot of places is to institute aesthetic fault lines between services. Generally, what this looks like is that that Matins/Orthros is the domain of a lone cantor (or two or three) up until perhaps the Great Doxology, at which point it’s taken over by the choir. This interrupts the intrinsic unity of the services as they are intended to be served according to present-day service books, but it’s a solution. Speaking personally, I have put a good deal of time and effort over the last several years trying to become at least a competent cantor, and I’ve experienced the glory that is Orthros and Divine Liturgy being treated as a seamless garment sung in one musical idiom by the same people throughout, but I’m also not fundamentally thrown off by the presence of a polyphonic choir singing polyphonic repertoire.

While I’m thinking about it — I was surprised to discover that there is not, exactly, agreement over what exactly constitutes “Byzantine chant”. As I was taught, “Byzantine chant” indicates a particular process of composition of monophonic melodies for Orthodox liturgical text, employing a particular musical idiom with its own relationship to the text, theoretical characteristics, notational system, vocal style, and practice of ornamentation, informed by oral tradition (or, to use words perhaps more familiar to Western musicians, “performance practice”). In other words, it is not a fixed, bounded repertoire, but rather a living tradition; you can compose “Byzantine chant” for English texts by following the compositional process and sing the result with the proper style and performance practice. For English, this perspective probably prefers the work of Ioannis Arvanitis, Basil Crow, Papa Ephraim at St. Anthony’s Monastery, John Michael Boyer, and the like. This is also essentially the point of view presently taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology by Dr. Grammenos Karanos (more about them here).

At the same time, I’ve encountered the point of view — from both cradles and converts, people who are theoretically knowledgeable and people who aren’t — that that’s not Byzantine chant at all. Byzantine chant, according to some, actually is a fixed, bounded repertoire for Greek and Arabic; for one reason or another, so this point of view goes, a fresh setting for an English text might be a number of things, but it isn’t Byzantine chant anymore. (Either because the compositional process is imperfect for English, doesn’t work at all for English, or is irrelevant in the first place, depending on to whom one speaks.) The whole idea of formulaic composition here is set aside; it’s the melody that already exists that’s important, not the relationship of the melody to the text by way of those melodic formulae, and that melody needs to be preserved for it to still be “Byzantine chant”, even at the expense of proper formulae or orthography. This perspective would find, for example, Fr. Charles Baz’s transcriptions of the Basil Kazan Byzantine Project into Byzantine notation not just acceptable, but preferable to the work of the composers mentioned above.

And then there are still other “sides” within what I’ve outlined above. The bottom line is, there is more than plenty to argue about where music is concerned. For my own part, I try to be a specialist but not a partisan, and I think context matters. I don’t think that means “anything goes”, but to the extent that traditions of liturgical crafts have historical contexts (even Byzantine chant!), I’m not sure how much it accomplishes to pick fights. Part of the problem, as I’ve experienced myself, is that there aren’t a lot of people who are sufficiently well-trained Western musicians and Byzantine cantors, such that they can adequately participate in, or even comprehend or relate to, both contexts. There are some, but not many, and there’s generally not a lot of interest on the part of one “side” in learning about how the other “side” does things. I am able to go back and forth between the psalterion and the choir loft to some extent — I suppose I’d say I’m equally clumsy in both contexts — and I’m interested in what goes on in both, but I have my own opinions that I bring with me, certainly. (You don’t say, you’re both thinking.) I don’t like the hodgepodge of whatever random music might be thrown together that it seems to me that the choir loft can become. I don’t like a structure of liturgical responsibility that effectively tells a cantor, “We want you to cover all of the services that nobody comes to” (let’s be honest here). At the same time, if “Byzantine chant” is understood principally as “what the old guy whose voice is nasal and can’t stabilize on a single pitch, and who should have stepped down 25 years ago but didn’t because there wasn’t anybody to take his place, does before Divine Liturgy”, then that’s its own problem, one that we cantors need to be proactive about fixing. In general, we church musicians, cantors and choristers alike, need to be a lot more proactive about, shall we say, reaching across the nave and educating ourselves about our own musical heritage and where the stuff we might individually prefer actually fits in.

Okay, so then there’s the question of how an ensemble like Cappella Romana fits into this picture. As a professional choral ensemble that specializes in a particular kind of repertoire — Orthodox liturgical music in all of its variety — but one that is also led by a Greek Orthodox Christian and that has a substantial, though not exclusive, Orthodox membership on its roster, what is their role? Do they have a responsibility to follow a particular ecclesiastical agenda, even though they’re not an ecclesiastical organization? To put it one way, is their job descriptive or prescriptive? Are they a de facto liturgical choir that is only to record and perform in concerts the music that “should” be done in churches? Or, as a performing ensemble first and foremost, are they perhaps the kind of ensemble that should be exploring repertoire like Peter Michaelides, medieval Byzantine chant, Fr. Ivan Moody, and so on? Maybe they get to be the King’s College Choir, as it were, that records and performs things that would likely never be used liturgically, nor be appropriate to be used liturgically. But then, just as the Choir of King’s still sings daily services, Cappella has its “pastoral” projects, like The Divine Liturgy in English, where they are most definitely trying to disseminate an ideal of sound for churches to emulate. Alas, in some circles this argument of a two-sphere approach generates the the rather grumpy insistence that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, or at the very least that art is a luxury that Orthodoxy cannot afford in in its current context in the New World. To me, that’s absurd, but as I have my own Orthodox artistic music project in the works, perhaps I’m not the most objective of critics where that point of view is concerned. At the very least, even if one is to ultimately dismiss liturgical use of the repertoire, I might suggest that Greek-American choral repertoire, not unlike the Greek idiom of vernacular music known as rebetiko, is worth understanding on its own terms at a musical and sociological level. (If you’re wondering what I mean by that, a full discussion is perhaps beyond our present scope, but I might submit that Greek American choral music, like what I understand is the case with rebetiko, can be seen as essentially a folk repertoire born in a context of emigration.) At any rate, thank God that it’s an ensemble like Cappella Romana taking it on, where the leadership and at least some of the membership have an intimate understanding themselves of the various elements at play.

And finally to the CD itself, which, because of the reasons mentioned by Lingas in the essay and what I discuss above, is in the unenviable position of not being able simply to be a recording of sacred music, but rather a recording that must be interpreted as a statement of something by people who don’t want the music contained therein legitimized, AND by people for whom this is the right music, but the wrong way to sing it. Jeffers Engelhardt, can you help me out here?

Well, to give you a capsule review (full review will be in the next post, now that I’ve got all of this stuff off my chest), if you come to the disc without needing it to be a statement of anything in particular, you will find that it is a beautifully-sung recording of some gorgeous music. The essay in the booklet about the music’s historical context is fascinating, both for what it says as well as what it doesn’t say. And yes, Cappella sings Tikey’s music like it’s Palestrina, and you know what? It sounds glorious. So, “authentic” or not, works for me.

Be right back.

Places I wish I could be: Cappella Romana goes to Hagia Sophia by way of Stanford

Something that I’ve been paying a good deal of attention to in the last year is the Icons of Sound project at Stanford University. Art historian Bissera Pentcheva has been involved in piecing together a working model of the aesthetic environment of Hagia Sophia, and the work has involved a recreation of the Great Church’s acoustics. Strategically placed (to say nothing of carefully negotiated with the Turkish government) balloon pops in the cathedral provided an audio sample sufficient to generate a computer model of the building’s resonance and decay, and they called in the big guns, Cappella Romana, to record some things that would demonstrate the model’s efficacy. An initial proof of concept of the project was published in the form of the stunning video found on this page.

The project has proceeded from there, and this weekend is a huge development — Cappella Romana doing a weekend residency at Stanford and presenting two concerts in the university’s new state-of-the-art Bing Hall. These concerts will involve setting up a sound system that uses the computer model of Hagia Sophia’s acoustic; the ensemble and the audience will, in theory, experience the music as though it were being sung in the Great Church itself.

I really wish I could be there, no question about it; if you live anywhere near Stanford, tickets are still available for Saturday evening’s performance. More information is at the Cappella Romana blog, and there’s also a fascinating article about the project in Stanford Live Magazine.

Since the ideal acoustic environment for churches, particularly Orthodox churches, is a topic about which I find myself constantly trying to evangelize to others, I would like to note the following excerpt from the magazine article:

“We learned that spaces have their own particular sound, created by the reverberation and patterns of the reflections that interact with the performer,” says [Jonathan Abel, a consulting professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics in Stanford’s Music Department]. “Singers vary tempo and even subtly vary pitch to hit resonances of the building. There’s an interaction that happens in the field of the space, to the point where it’s difficult to separate the acoustics of the space from the performance of the music. When you perform a piece of music that was written for a particular acoustic in that very same space, it conveys something unique to the listener.”

CR’s Artistic Director, Alexander Lingas, follows up on this a bit later in the piece:

“As singers,” says Lingas, “we’re used to making adjustments for specific acoustics. We can feel and hear the resonances where harmonics lock in between each other, which affects tempo and tuning. So we’re very interested in seeing how it will work when we unite all the parts together in Bing Hall.”

If you’re somebody who is going to be at one of these concerts, I’d love to hear about your experience.

CORRECTION, 8:04pm — I am told that Saturday’s concert is in Memorial Church, not Bing. Thank you for letting me know!

Review: Cappella Romana, Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium

Cappella Romana is an ensemble that’s hard to pin down. Are they an early music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but they don’t generally do Bach or Monteverdi. Are they a sacred music ensemble? Yes, but they’re not affiliated with a specific church institution (i. e., a cathedral or parish). Are they a world music ensemble? Sort of, since much of the music they sing originates in the Mediterranean, but not exactly. Are they a contemporary music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but much of the contemporary music they do is decidedly in an older tradition. Are they a pastoral, confessional affair? Of sorts, I suppose, although their membership is by no means entirely composed of Orthodox Christians. Are they a scholarly project? Well, yes, they’re kind of that too, given that the booklets tend to be article-length affairs with footnotes and bibliography. I suppose you could say that they’re an early world contemporary sacred music vocal ensemble that’s run by a musicologist.

They’ve been extraordinarily productive in terms of recorded output in the last eight years; since 2004 they’ve put out some eight discs (ten if you include the compilation for the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibit and their contribution to the Choral Settings of Kassiani project) that have run the gamut — medieval Byzantine chant, Russian-American liturgical settings, a long-form concert work by an American master, Western polyphony, Greek-American polyphonic liturgical music, and Christmas carols (of a sort). Their recordings also continue to get better and better; I picked up their discography in 2004 starting with the Music of Byzantium compilation of various live and recorded excerpts, followed by Lay Aside All Earthly Cares, their collection of Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music, and then 2006’s The Fall of Constantinople, a program I had heard them perform here in Bloomington. Comparing just those three discs to each other, there’s a noticeable jump in quality, and then comparing them to recent releases such as the Peter Michaelides Divine Liturgy, it’s clear that they’ve found a groove in the studio (as well as perhaps in the editing booth) and they’re riding it now. They’re recording music nobody else is really doing, and while that means it’s hard to know what an applicable comparandum for any particular recording might be, it’s clear listening to it that they’re doing it at a very high level regardless, and the good news about the lack of comparable recordings is that it reveals the sheer richness of the Orthodox musical heritage. Arvo Pärt and Rachmaninoff are great, but there’s much, much more that you can do.

Mt. Sinai: The Frontier of Byzantium fits into this scheme by presenting music from late medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai, one of the key crossroads for Eastern Christianity. A Chalcedonian monastic outpost dating as far back as the days of Justinian in the middle of non-Chalcedonian Egypt, it is a treasure house of some of our earliest witnesses to the Christian iconographic tradition (since it was a place of refuge from the iconclasts), and its library of manuscripts in virtually every language of the Roman oikoumene is a witness to the catholicity of the Empire that produced them. The musical selections include portions of a Vespers for the monastery’s patronal feast, as well as the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, a quasi-liturgical drama that would have been served between Matins and Divine Liturgy on the Sunday before Christmas.

The Vespers material is interesting, particularly how Psalm 103 is treated. It is something of a mix of reconstructed Palestinian practice and present-day Greek tradition, where the first three verses are sung antiphonally, and then Koukouzelis et al.‘s setting of the Anoixantaria (the section of Ps. 103 that starts with, “Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good…”) is interpolated with Triadika, short refrains glorifying the Trinity. It’s an approach to psalmody (in the literal sense of the word) that is generally eschewed in modern American parish practice; we tend to treat whole psalms as something to get through as quickly and as plainly as possible. Of course, just singing the Anoixantaria can take as long as 20 minutes depending on whose setting one is doing, so when parishes want to get Vespers done in half an hour or less, that’s the way it is. Elements like this emphasize how, ideally, our worship needs to be unhurried; we’re on God’s time, he’s not on our time.

The Service of the Furnace portion is lovely. It’s a real curiosity, liturgically speaking; the notes refer to it having been part of the practice of Constantinople and Thessaloniki (and subsequently Crete), and something that developed during the so-called “Byzantine ars nova“, where an artistic and spiritual flourishing was paradoxically occurring in the East at the same time as the political collapse. I’m left wanting to know more about how exactly how it developed, and why, and why it didn’t catch on elsewhere in the Orthodox world.

There are several musical textures in the Furnace section, solo to choral, syllabic to highly melismatic, and they’re all handled with beautiful musicianship and and some of the best male ensemble singing you’re ever likely to hear on a CD. One thing I’d point out is that this actually is something that has been commercially recorded before and is more or less available, even if you have to know where to look for it. Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir (EBX) recorded parts of it for a Polish release called “Byzantine Hymns”, and while I have yet to actually find this for purchase anywhere, you can find their rendering of the Service of the Furnace hymnody on YouTube.   Obviously there’s a bit of a difference in approach; EBX tends to have a different vocal quality all around that I would describe as a little more suntanned and weatherbeaten, and they’re singing the material the way they sing at church every Sunday. EBX also employs a children’s choir for the Three Youths themselves, which is apparently the historical practice and sounds fantastic, but I can see several reasons why that might be an undesirable layer of complexity for Cappella’s presentation.

One other thought — something that a recording like this might help to give a glimpse of is the vitality of the Christian tradition in the Middle East. St. Catherine’s Monastery is an Egyptian witness to a faithful, diverse, cosmopolitan Christianity in the Roman world, and that Christianity is still there, alive, and hanging on. Projects like this show that it is a witness that has much still to teach us.


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