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Posts Tagged 'holy cross greek orthodox theological seminary'

In which I talk about a departure and ponder what the heck to do with all the books

Wow. I haven’t posted since two days before Christmas. Yikes. Sorry about that; we spent Christmas in Alaska with my mother and stepfather, had a lovely time seeing them, spent a great Sunday afternoon with several of my relatives on my dad’s side (none of whom had yet met Theodore), attended Christmas services at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Anchorage, and then came back for New Year’s in Cleveland with our friends, the newly-engaged Benjamin and Emily, and Paul.

Since then, I’ve mostly been a stressed-out wreck, wondering just where in the heck we’re going to be after the summer.

See, it’s been the idea for some time that we would do our level best to make AY2013-2014 our last year in Bloomington. Both Doctors-to-be Barrett being at the dissertation stage, there’s no concrete reason to stay here; to the extent that there might be external opportunities that would be better-suited to the completion of our respective dissertations (dissertatia? dissertationes?) in terms of working environment and locale, then it would be well worthwhile to try to take advantage of said opportunities.

This meant a lot of fellowship applications in October and November. My sights were zeroed-in on Dumbarton Oaks, of course; I was there two summers ago, and I’d very much like to go back. Fellow housing is right there, a 2-3 minute walk from the compound, the Greek cathedral is a 15 minute walk away, and you’re right there in the middle of Georgetown. What would be not to like? That was just one of several applications, though; I applied for the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, too, and then I also applied for something called the Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship, which sets up advanced graduate students with yearlong Visiting Lecturer positions at Indiana University branch campuses. I thought perhaps I might be able to get a spot at IUPUI, and just relocate all the way to Indianapolis, since our lives have kind of re-centered around there lately anyway. Besides those, I applied for several non-residential fellowships; the Charlotte Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship, administered by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, was one, as well as several IU-internal awards — generic dissertation fellowships, and a couple of named awards that were significantly bigger, like the John Edwards Fellowship and the Herman B. Wells Fellowship. If nothing else, maybe we could take the money and go spend the year in Alaska.

The other thing that was happening was that two close friends of mine started as seminarians at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology this last fall. Holy Cross had piqued my curiosity back in 2010, when I found out that my chant teacher, Ioannis Arvanitis, was applying for the chant professor position there (and I was singularly annoyed with some friends of mine there when he was brought to campus as a finalist the following spring and nobody told me). He didn’t get it, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the possibility of spending a dissertation year there. I made some initial contact with the patristics professor there at the Byzantine Studies conference in Chicago in 2011, and visited the campus the following spring. Yes, people do come the way you’re talking about, I was told, but we’re not sure about the mechanics. Usually they come with their own funding. Hm. Well, that’s not altogether promising for a graduate student. Okay, well, maybe it’s not a realistic possibility. Still — well, who knows? When my friends got there last September, I told them, only half-joking, keep your ears to the ground. If you hear about a faculty member going on sabbatical, or a grant opportunity, or anything, let me know.

In December, one of my friends contacted me and said, hey, you realize that there’s a Fellow In Residence position outlined in the catalog? He sent me the reference in the catalog; I made some initial inquiries, and was put in touch with the Dean — who, now, is the very person I first had this conversation with in Chicago three years ago. We were going to make a visit to the campus over MLKJr weekend anyway, so we set up an in-person meeting during the trip. He was positive about the conversation, but he was nonetheless clear that it was a competitive process and subject to a faculty vote. He took my materials and said, we’ll get back to you by the end of February, I think — but if you get Dumbarton Oaks, go to Dumbarton Oaks for heavens’ sake.

Well, shortly thereafter, I started to get rejections back — the internal, generic dissertation fellowships were the first to get back to me, and those were “no”s. I got an interview for a Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship spot, but at Indiana University Columbus, which would be an hour’s commute without being worth a relocation. The interview went fine, but I think it was probably evident that I wasn’t excited about it, and ultimately that was a “no”.

Dumbarton Oaks had said that fellows would be notified in February; February came and went with no word from them or anybody else quite yet. I went back out to Holy Cross at the end of February for a conference, and the Dean made a point of telling me, hey, we hoped we’d have something to tell you by the time you got here, but we’re not going to be able to have a faculty meeting to decide until the second half of March. So, sit tight.

To say that I was tenterhooks waiting to hear where I would be in the coming year, be it Bloomington or elsewhere, was an understatement. I’ve also since realized that this is something that people tend to go through with college and grad school applications; they apply to several possibilities, wait to see what comes back, and then make the best decision they can based on the options. Well, I never did that; I only applied to one school for undergrad, and I only applied to one school for grad. This was my first time going through anything like this process.

Shortly after I got back from the conference, Dumbarton Oaks got back to me with their “no”, as did the Notre Dame folks. At the same time, the Newcombe people let me know I was a finalist, and they said I’d hear by the end of March.

The jawdropper was on Friday, 7 March, when I got the e-mail telling me I was the Wells recipient for AY2014/2015. Then, Monday, 31 March, I got a phone call from the Dean of Holy Cross, telling me that the faculty had voted to recommend me as the Fellow in Residence; the only thing left was to get the President’s office to okay it, and he didn’t anticipate that being a problem. Two days later, he called to confirm that the President had indeed approved my appointment — and that was that.

In August of 2003, I pulled into Bloomington, expecting I’d be here three years at the absolute most and then it would be back to Seattle. In August of this year, we will finally leave Bloomington, and we will do so for Boston. I am looking forward to this immensely; I’m looking forward to living in the Northeast corridor, I’m looking forward to good seafood, I’m looking forward to a 45 second walk to church — and, of course, I’m looking forward to structuring my time around writing my dissertation, something I just haven’t been able to do this year, at least not in the way that is maximally productive. I will have absolutely no excuse not to be done, that’s for sure. While I was most definitely disappointed about Dumbarton Oaks, this is probably as good of a deal as we could have possibly hoped for — and one thing that we’ll have at HCHC that we wouldn’t have had at DO is a group of people we know. That’s going to be important, particularly for Megan and Theodore.

Holy Cross was at once a somewhat after-the-fact Hail Mary pass, while also being something I had been making a nuisance of myself about for a couple of years. However it worked out, I’m not going to complain; glory to God.

I will say, though — I’m looking at our 10 large bookshelves thinking, um, yeah, so, storage. If anybody has done something like this before and has suggestions about what to do with too many damn books, I’m all ears. I’m also having to scan and return my accumulate and perpetually-renewed library books, piling up over the last 11 years. That’s going to be a project in and of itself.

I’ll also say that, while I don’t normally do this, now would be a welcome time for anybody who wants to click on the “Tip Jar” tab up above to do so, what with a move to Boston in our immediate future and all. If you’ve got any questions about any of that, drop me a line — richardbarrett (AT) johnofdamascus . org. Thanks in advance for your consideration.

Okay. I have books to scan. Back in a bit with a review of Cappella Romana’s Finnish CD.

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Two more last-nanosecond gift ideas

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

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

 

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

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.

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.

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.”

Brief recap of recent travels

Last month I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, and present a paper at, the Patristic Symposium of the Florovsky Society at Princeton University. I had also been looking for the right opportunity to visit Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary for about the last year or so, and while I missed the opportunity that I had really wanted (I had wanted to coincide with Ioannis Arvanitis’ campus visit, but I wasn’t told it was happening until after it had already happened), I decided that since I was going to be out on the East Coast anyway, I may as well roll a trip to Boston into the travel for the Florovsky Symposium.

I had never been to Princeton before. It was reasonably easy to get there from Newark Airport via train, it’s a lovely little town, and the campus is quite picturesque. It was a good opportunity to see some people I don’t get to see very often; I was able to catch up with an old Jacobs School of Music buddy of mine, Ben Eley, who now works for the university in a decidedly non-musical capacity and whom I hadn’t seen since summer of 2006, and I also was able to stay with our friend Paul who lives nearby. Alexis and Eugenia Torrance, with whom I’ve crossed paths a number of times over the last few years, were there, as was Seraphim Danckaert, whom I first met in the summer of 2004 when he was studying Romanian here. Ioana Patuleanu, a former All Saints-er who relocated to New Jersey last year, was there. My friends John and Katherine, both students at Holy Cross, also came down for the conference, and I rode back to Boston with them afterward.

It was also a chance to finally meet Fr. Andrew Damick in person, with whom I have been friends in the digital world for the last few years. We met for breakfast at PJ’s Pancake House Friday morning before heading over to the conference, and I think found that we are reasonably like-minded on a number of points.

As we walked over to the conference, I saw Fr. Benedict Churchill and Dn. Gregory Hatrak of SVS Press unloading boxes of books. I had met them at Oxford last summer, so I made a point of saying hi and taking one of the boxes to be of help. Well, no good deed goes unpunished; as I set the box down where they told me to put it, I managed to catch something at exactly the wrong angle with exactly the wrong amount of tension, and ripped open the crotch of my trousers.

Do note that this was also the day on which I was presenting my paper. Since I was staying with Paul, whose house was some 5 miles away, there was very little I could do except make sure my jacket was draped strategically and deliver my paper from behind a lectern. This is the kind of thing that happens to me.

Nonetheless, the paper was well-received and got a couple of good, productive questions. The rest of the conference was really interesting, although it was a curious reversal for me; usually I’m a little too ecclesiastical in my focus to neatly fit in with my history colleagues, but here, I was clearly a historian amongst theologians. Well, there we go.

Saturday evening John, Fr. Andrew, Alexis, and I were able to help chant Vespers for the Princeton Orthodox chaplaincy — for that service, in no less of a location than the Princeton Chapel itself. That didn’t suck (although the choir director looked a little shell-shocked at the end and said, “It’ll be lovely to have you all in the choir tomorrow morning, but I think maybe we’ll do a little less Greek chant”). I also got to briefly see an acquaintance I had made in Athens 3 years ago, who just happens to now be at Princeton and was at Vespers (even though she herself is Catholic). Small world. Following Vespers, Paul, Fr. Andrew, and I had really good Indian food for dinner, and then it was back to Emmaus for Fr. Andrew.

Sunday morning, following Divine Liturgy at the chaplaincy, Paul, John, Katherine, and I had breakfast at PJ’s (I just had to do it one more time), at which point the New Jersey leg of the trip had to come to a close, and it was time to head to Boston.

Holy Cross was a great trip; I met some neat people, including fellow blogger Kevin Edgecomb, I had some very good and productive conversations with members of the faculty (I’m contemplating spending a year there while I’m writing my dissertation), I was able to sit in on a number of good classes, especially the Byzantine chant classes, I got to sing in the left choir for a handful of chapel services, and, as with Princeton, I was able to make some new friends and catch up with some existing friends whom I don’t get to see all that often. Something that was a little unsetting was that there were people I met who said, “Oh, I know you! I read your blog!” Well, there we go.

Alas, I wasn’t able to get a Holy Cross shirt; I was told that they only place one order a year, and the larger sizes go quickly, so thus is life. I had to get some item of HCHC swag, though, so I bought a scarf.

One of the great things about the Holy Cross visit was seeing the current level of Antiochian representation there amongst the seminarians. There are 12 AOCANA guys there right now who are all getting a good grounding in Byzantine chant from Grammenos Karanos, good liturgics in the chapel (including the experience of antiphonal choirs being normative), and exposure to Greek and Arabic. This all seems like good stuff to have happening. One of the Antiochian seminarians I met was Rassem El-Massih, whom I’ve heard about for years but had not yet met — he’s an excellent cantor from Lebanon and all around good guy, it seems, and we had a really positive conversation my last morning there. He had some very encouraging things to say about the future of traditional Byzantine chant in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and I told him a bit about the objectives of the St. John of Damascus Society. Hopefully the Society can be part of the efforts he was talking about.

By the way, if you’re a single person considering going to Holy Cross, do be aware that the dorm rooms are tiny. And I mean tiny. Word to the wise.

Anyway, after three far-too-short days in Boston (which, honestly, I didn’t get to see much of because the seminary trip took up all the time I had), it was time to take the train back to Newark and fly home.

And then it was time to start preparing for my next trip, this time to Emmaus, Pennsylvania to give a couple of talks on music at a Lenten retreat at St. Paul’s Orthodox Church, Fr. Andrew Damick’s parish.

I arrived at St. Paul’s the evening of Friday, 2 March, just in time to help sing an Akathist service. Their building is a repurposed valve machine shop; in terms of layout, it’s not unlike All Saints, low ceilings and all, except that enough surfaces are sufficiently reflective that it’s actually a reasonably decent acoustic environment. I was quite surprised.

Saturday morning I sang Matins and Divine Liturgy for St. Theodore the Tyro (we also did the Blessing of the Kollyva). The morning was pretty much up to me, and having such an uncustomary free reign, I sang an all-Byzantine liturgy. It was really nice to sing that repertoire in that room, I have to say.

Following Liturgy, I gave the first talk. There were about 15-20 people, and they had good questions (although some of the questions were such that, the frank way I had to answer them, it was best to omit the Q&A from the online version). Not bad attendance and participation, considering that Fr. Andrew made the mistake of putting my name on the flyer (see for yourself).

During the afternoon, Fr. Andrew gave me a bit of tour of Emmaus, and I have to say, as a town, the place is cute as a bug’s ear. I’d love to have more of a chance to get to know the place sometime.

After Vespers, I gave the second talk. There was about half the attendance, and about half of those people hadn’t been there in the afternoon. Again, some good questions, and all things considered pretty good given that my face was used for advertising. In any event, my job was done, Fr. Andrew took me out for Chinese food, and once again we had a great conversation over a wide range of topics.

Sunday morning, it was back to Kazan and their usual polyphonic mix of things; Gail Ortner is a capable choir director, and truthfully, it was nice to just stand there and sing and not have to worry about everything being my problem.

Thanks to a flight delay, I was able to attend the Lehigh Valley Pan-Orthodox Vespers for Sunday of Orthodoxy at St. Nicholas Cathedral (GOA). It’s a beautiful church, and it was a very nice way to end the visit. It worked out perfectly, and I got to the airport with plenty of time to catch my plane.

And now I’m home until May.

I’ll say this — getting to know Fr. Andrew a bit has been one of the real highlights of the last six weeks. He’s one of the good guys — he appears to have a genuine love of God, the Church, Tradition, and the people he serves; he is able to use his theatrical background and intellectual acuity to great effect (as opposed to great affect, which I’ve seen happen all too often); he seems to very much care about the place he is in and wants to serve it to the best of his ability; he seems to have a very good handle on where his parish is at and what they need to be doing; and — very important — he has a supportive group of parishioners behind him, and a really awesome family at home. I hope to have more of a chance to get to know him down the road.


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