Advertisements

Posts Tagged 'kontakion on the nativity of christ'

Review: Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist by Jane G. Meyer

sweetsongAncient Faith Publishing was kind enough to send me a review copy of their new children’s book, Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist, written by children’s author Jane G. Meyer and with full color illustrations throughout by artist Dorrie Papademetriou.

Sweet Song adapts for the genre of illustrated storybook the defining moment in St. Romanos’ vita — when, unable to sing in church without drawing the ridicule of his fellow readers, he dreamed that the Mother of God gave him a scroll to eat. He did so, and when he awoke, he was able to sing and compose hymns, chanting ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον (“The Virgin comes today”) — what we today sing as the Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ — at the Nativity Vigil. In particular, Meyer emphasizes the personal conflict between St. Romanos and the readers who ridiculed him, concluding with a moment of forgiveness after the demonstration of his new gift during the service.

Orthodox liturgy and music have seemed to me for some time to be rich material for a children’s book, and Meyer/Papademetriou have done a nice job of employing them for younger readers (I’m guessing preschool to kindergarten). Ms. Meyer’s text is easy to read as well as charming, presenting the saint as something of an awkward teenager; earnest but all arms and legs, and alas! no voice. She uses the text of the Kontakion to appropriate effect at the story’s climax, which is a nice touch, and if St. Romanos’ entreaties at the icon of the Mother of God are a little heavy-handed, it’s smoothed over by being well in line with his teenager-y earnestness.

Ms. Papademetriou has done some beautifully detailed work for the book. St. Romanos as painted by her brush is not just an awkward teenager but a bit of a gangly awkward teenager as well, with mussed up hair to boot. While the story may ostensibly be set in sixth century Constantinople, there is an element of anachronism to her visualization, with later, medieval icons, eighth century Communion spoons, and Ottoman vestments interacting freely in her imaginary Constantinopolitan landscape. Ms. Papademetriou’s depiction of the church in which St. Romanos serves is lovely, bright, and colorful; a Byzantine church in all of its late antique glory (and even with a real ambo!). There is nothing of the stereotypical dark, dank medieval church building in her illustrations.

At just shy of eighteen months, my toddler Theodore is still a bit young for this book, but he understands a lot of what is said to him at this stage of the game, and he has developed a very real interest in icons and service books. When he sees a book with a cross on it, he picks it up and says (sometimes chants) “Allya!” (“Alleluia!”) When he sees an icon, he says “Durts!” (“Church!”). When he puts an “Allya!” book down, he says “Amen!” So, Flesh of My Flesh read it to him, showing and explaining to him the pictures as she went. His running commentary throughout: “Allya! Durts!” And then, at the end of the book, he said, quite definitively, “Amen!” So, I guess the book gets a thumbs up from Theodore, too.

Also appreciated is a nice one-page explanation of St. Romanos’ life and historical context at the end of the book.

If I have a quibble, it’s the use of Western staff notation as part of the visual language of the book, featured as it is on the cover, the fly-leaves, and in the body of the story. Granted, as long as Ms. Papademetriou is freely using anachronism, there really should be no problem, and psaltic notation would be just as anachronistic. Still, everything else in the book is identifiably Byzantine; the Western-style notes look out of sync with the rest of the imagery. A reproduction of an icon of St. Romanos at the end that does use psaltic notation shows how visually striking it can be; it seems a missed opportunity here.

Advertisements

Some last-minute gift ideas…

Obviously it’s Thursday, and Christmas is Sunday, so this isn’t even last-minute but last-second. Last-millisecond, even. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions for those of you foolish enough to think that my taste might be the slightest bit relevant:

Consider giving a gift to International Orthodox Christian Charities. Their mission: “IOCC, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond.” They do a lot of wonderful work throughout the world like Palestine, Syria, Romania, Ethiopia, and more — including the United States.
A Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer. My Samsonite leather satchel fell apart on me over the summer, and I contemplated whether or not I could swing a Saddleback classic briefcase (my godson Lucas has one and it is a thing of beauty), but then Larry Anderson suggested I check out the options from Tom Bihn. I got a great traveling laptop briefcase for about a third of what the Saddleback bag I was considering would have cost, it’s got a lifetime guarantee, and it’s been perfect for when I’ve needed to travel with my 15″ MacBook Pro. Of course, the day after the bag arrived I bought an iPad 2 (yeah, yeah, earlier than I said I would, but no regrets, let me tell you), so I have tended to need to transport the laptop less (short version: to the extent that laptops have become desktop replacements, iPads are laptop replacements), but it’s stil been exactly right for what I need. It’s very elegantly designed, and it’s very good at making sure there is a place for everything. The one caveat I might add is that while the bag is plenty sturdy, the stretchy shoulder strap may feel like it’s more stressed than it actually is if you overload it. Not an issue if you don’t, well, overload it, and the bounce the shoulder stap provides makes the bag a lot easier to carry once you get used to it (it basically seems to function as a shock absorber).

Cappella Romana’s new disc Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium. A full review of this is forthcoming, but for right now suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully-sung account of medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Repertoire includes material for Vespers of the Feast of St. Catherine, as well as from the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, which used to be served on the Sunday before Nativity. Some of this has been recorded before by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir for a disc called “Byzantine Hymns” (and one can find the audio on YouTube but I can’t find out anything about the disc, so if anybody knows anything about it, please let me know), but Cappella Romana is a very different ensemble from GBC in a number of ways, and their rendering of the material is very much worth hearing. Like I said, full review coming, but this is a great stocking stuffer. For that matter, so is the reissue of the Epiphany disc under their own label. And, of course, their recording of Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a must-have. One can also make a gift to Cappella Romana, either to their general operating fund or to support one of their several in-the-works recordings.

If you’re an iPad user who thinks that the soft-tipped styli that you’re likely to find at Best Buy don’t really do what you need them to do, I highly recommend the Jot-Pro. It makes handwriting and drawing much easier.

For another music suggestion, Marcel Peres/Ensemble Organum’s recording of Christmas music from the Old Roman Chant repertory, Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siècles, is a fascinating and beautiful reconstruction of a time when East and West had a lot more in common, culturally and spiritually, than we’re used to now. “Reconstruction” is often a euphemism in early music circles for “making nonsense up”, but as I’ve noted before, I think Peres (collaborating with Lycourgos Angelopoulos) makes a pretty compelling case.

If you’re a Mac user and a writer who needs to manage a decent amount of research, notes, ideas, dates, etc., Scrivener and Tinderbox are a pretty powerful one-two punch. If you’re already a Scrivener user, there’s also deal on Tinderbox. I’m new to Tinderbox myself, but I’ve been using Scrivener for several years now, and I find it to be fantastically helpful in terms of its set of writing tools. I’ve written (and am still revising) a children’s book and several academic papers with it. The only thing I wish it had was cleaner EndNote integration, and I also have to make sure I remember to not send compiled *.rtf documents as finished drafts (must save as a Word doc or a *.pdf), lest the person on the other end simply open it in a text editor by default and think I’ve made the rookie mistake of not including any footnotes. (Yes, this has happened. Recently.)

Horrified as I am by the K-Cup craze, I’m going to suggest the paleocafephile route (I think I just invented a word) — the briki/ibrik, with which one makes Greek/Turkish/Arabic coffee. You don’t have little plastic containers that keep you from ever handling grounds; nonononono. Heh. No. Instead, you grind the beans to powder, boil the grounds directly (no filter), pour it into a cup, add sugar (and maybe cardamom if you’re Cypriot), and then you deal with the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It’s the only way to fly in a word that wants to make your coffee experience as safe and plastic and single-serving-sized as possible.

Michael Uslan is, without doubt, the comic book geek made good to end all comic book geeks made good. His memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is tremendously inspiring, and is a must-read for anybody, whether they’ve read a comic book or not, who has ever been told, “Kid, you can’t get there from here.”

All right — may the last few days of the fast treat everybody well!

Richard Toensing on NPR’s Performance Today

Just so people are aware, an excerpt from Cappella Romana‘s recording of Richard Toensing‘s Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ (reviewed here) is being played as part of today’s program on NPR’s Performance Today, complete with a mini-interview with Toensing as a lead-in. You can find today’s show online here.

(As a side — but still related — note, somebody whom I’ve known since seventh grade and who happened to go on to be a grad student of Toensing’s at UC-Boulder e-mailed me yesterday to tell me that they’re being blessed as a catechumen on Sunday. This is still stunning me for any number of reasons.)

AGAIN, again, and again

The latest issue of AGAIN was in my mailbox when I stumbled up my steps at 2:00 Tuesday morning. Fr. Michael Gillis was once again kind enough to include a couple of pieces from me, both an edited-down version of my review of Cappella Romana’s recording of Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ, as well as my choir schools essay, somewhat revised and updated. Plus, the letter to the editor regarding the use of “Holy Strong” in the Trisagion was run, as well as a slightly edited version of my response.

This has been a nice, fruitful run of luck, and while I don’t have anything further for Fr. Michael to try to make readable at the moment, perhaps I will after my trip to Greece. At any rate, I very much appreciate his being willing to work with a writer like me. It has been a blessing, and perhaps his willingness to run my trifles will open some doors down the road — time will tell.

Review: Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ, by Cappella Romana

About four years ago, I was lucky enough to get to sing in concert performances of both the Gretchaninoff and Rachmaninoff settings of the Vigil (more commonly, and incompletely, known as “Vespers” to Western audiences because they don’t know what a Vigil is). Something that was very difficult about the experiences of singing them, however, was knowing that we English-speaking Orthodox Christians do not yet have equivalent works, and that to sing such things in translation would be to largely destroy much what makes the settings so beautiful, since they’re so tied to the Slavonic texts. Subsequent conversations about this with friends of mine who are composers and Orthodox Christians revealed a very real reluctance to become “Orthodox composers” — and I’m still not sure I totally get why, but there we are. Since then, I’ve discovered the music of people like Kurt Sander, whose setting of the Nunc dimittis in English is itself a mini-masterwork, and Ivan Moody, to say nothing of Fr. Sergei Glagolev — and while as a whole we are miles from maturity, it would not be at all fair to say that there are no English-language Orthodox composers attempting to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by some of their old-world counterparts.

Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a large-scale work by a fully mature composer which picks up that gauntlet and throws it down again, quite honestly. The intended scope of the piece is indicated by its subtitle, “A Choral Concerto,” and one important point to make before we get any further — this is not, repeat not, a liturgical work. I suppose there might be, hypothetically speaking, a cathedral somewhere with an absolutely amazing choir who could pull it off liturgically, but who actually does the full Nativity kontakion liturgically anyway, these days?

(You might be thinking to yourself one of three things right now. If either 1 — “What’s a kontakion and why do I care?” — or 2 — “Don’t we sing different kontakia for various liturgical seasons?” — then I can tell you that a kontakion in its original form was a very lengthy kind of hymn with many stanzas and a refrain, and the proper kontakia we sing now are only the first stanzas of the applicable full-length versions. If 3 — “Well, we do sing a kontakion every time we do an Akathist” — then please pat yourself on the head and have a cookie.)

As a work intended explicitly for the concert stage rather than the parish choir, much like the Rachmaninoff Vigil setting, Toensing is free to paint on a vast, expansive canvas, and does he ever. He liberally employs text painting, use of soloists and small ensembles, an extensive harmonic vocabulary, adept counterpoint, tone clusters, and so on. Great — but does it sound like music? Yes, most definitely — glorious, lush, beautiful, dramatic, and demanding music. The press materials state that Toensing is “indebted to Slavic traditions,” and perhaps that’s true to some extent, but what I also hear is a master composer, fully on top of his game, synthesizing many of the best influences of 20th century choral writing, including Francis Poulenc, William Harris, Ralph Vaughan Williams, even Lloyd Pfautsch. The wordy text is set in a very sensitive but expressive manner often evocative of the deftness which made Benjamin Britten such a master with English. At some points I found myself thinking, “This is what Morten Lauridsen would sound like if he had more than one trick up his sleeve.” At the same time, the way Toensing uses the music to support the text is strongly suggestive, not just of well-trained artistic sensibility, but also of a deep faith informing his compositional choices, much like Bach.

Toensing shifts from one color to another with ease and control, and is as much an expert with different choral textures. For example, the first stanza begins with a solo cantor on a chant melody, joined gradually by the rest of the ensemble, building until finally the choir is all together on the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”). One stanza transitions smoothly into another, no matter how stark the contrast — in Movement III, Stanza IX (“Receive then, O Holy Lady”) he renders the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”) as a heart-stopping, everybody singing out, vocal-folds-to-the-wall climax, only to begin the next movement immediately with a simple, peaceful melody introduced by the women, without it ever feeling like any kind of a disconnect.

The members of Cappella Romana bring their usual high standard into the game, delivering Toensing’s “poeticized” version of St. Romanos the Melodist’s text with crispness and clarity. Too often choirs sing modern choral works like they’re just trying to get the notes right and they’ll let somebody else figure out how to make music with it later; in this premiere recording of Toensing’s work, Alexander Lingas refuses to take that route, and the ensemble makes music with it now, taking Toensing’s sonic palette firmly in hand and detailing the peaks and valleys rather than just sketching them in. Soprano LeeAnne DenBeste sings the Theotokos’ lines (I really hesitate to call “the part of the Theotokos”) with a crystal clear timbre and laserlike accuracy, and the other soloists acquit themselves admirably as well.

All of that said, I am not convinced that the depths of Toensing’s piece are fully plumbed, and the disc is not flawless. In the case of the former — well, no, of course not. A recording like this is hopefully the beginning of a conversation, rather than just a monologue. It would a rarity indeed for a premiere to be both the first and last word on a given piece (expressively speaking, at least — it is quite common for such recordings to be the first and last word from a commercial standpoint). This recording is without doubt a very strong opening statement to the conversation, but I would be very curious to know what the Kontakion might sound like using boys and men (with boys singing the solo soprano parts as well, not just the choral sections), and I would also love to hear, just for the sake of knowing the difference, what kind of nuances an English conductor might discover in the piece.

My criticisms of the disc itself center around one particular technical point — the acoustic is on the dry side, and there are times where the singers are clearly not loving the dryness of the room as much as they might — which I can well understand, singing services every week as I do in a church where the ceiling of acoustic tiles is inches from my head. My guess is that they chose the less-reverberant approach to clarify the text as much as possible, which I can also appreciate, but there are times where the vocal writing sounds like some reverberation of the chord has been assumed by the composer to be there, so when it doesn’t happen it sounds like something is missing. With nothing but admiration and respect for the effort as presented here, this is another reason why I’d be interested in a performance by somebody native to the English choral tradition — I would like to hear their solution.

One thing I am obliged to mention — something we forget sometimes in a world where we hear music in every kind of room and venue and in every medium imaginable except live in the hall is that music like this is intended to be heard, well, live in the hall. That’s really where the Kontakion needs to be heard, not on an iPod or in the car. It is difficult, therefore, to fairly judge this recording without knowing firsthand what it should sound like in person. I don’t say that to qualify my criticisms or to de-emphasize the praise; I’m just saying that to have a premiere recording three months before the premiere performance is putting the cart before the horse, particularly for somebody wanting to write as honest a review of the music as possible — it is unavoidable in the music landscape of today, unfortunately, but I sincerely hope I can have the chance at some point to experience Toensing’s music as it was intended rather than an electronic simulation of same. It would be akin to writing a review of The Dark Knight based on a pan-and-scan DVD screener watched on a 20″ TV. It doesn’t change the plot, the dialogue, the performances, or anything like that, but it is clear enough from the smaller-scale experience that “there’s a lot more ‘there’ there,” if you know what I mean, and without actually seeing it in IMAX to catch everything, you don’t know exactly what it is.

Besides the Kontakion are several “Orthodox Christmas carols,” Toensing’s settings of Fr. Jack Sparks’ metrical translations of Nativity hymnody. These are all positively delightful and inventive, surprisingly so, and good luck getting them out of your head once you’re familiar with them (particularly “What Shall We Call You,” from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, and “O Let Creation All Rejoice,” from the First Canon of Nativity Eve Matins). I could easily see these settings as having a place within the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity, as well as possibly being adopted as anthems by church choirs in other communions. As with parts of the Kontakion, many of these are particularly evocative of the best of English choral writing, but there are also clearly some American folk influences (“Now Christ is Born Upon the Earth,” from the Canon of Nativity Matins, particularly has shapenote-esque things going on) suggesting that elements of both sung traditions may ultimately be useful as “American Orthodox music,” whatever it winds up being, coalesces.

In summary, Toensing’s Kontakion is an epic choral masterwork by a composer who is both American and Orthodox, and as a result it is perhaps the first such piece we might dub “American Orthodox.” If it is not quite on par with the best of its Russian Orthodox counterparts, it is only because it does not have the centuries of native Orthodox Christian tradition upon which to draw, not because of anything lacking in Toensing’s abilities as a composer or in the piece itself. The performance itself is, despite a key technical choice which is probably arguable one way or the other, a very compelling case for the work to have a life beyond Cappella Romana’s advocacy and championing, and I very much hope this happens. Recommended.

(Kurt Sander, I think you’re next up at bat.)


Advertisements

Richard’s Twitter

adventures in writing alexander lingas all saints bloomington all saints orthodox church american orthodox architecture american orthodox music american orthodoxy Antiochian Archdiocese Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America Antiochians books byzantine chant cappella romana chant church architecture ecclesiastical chant ethnomusicologists ethnomusicology fellowship of ss. alban and sergius Greece Greek greek food greekness hazards of church music international travel tips ioannis arvanitis joe mckamey john michael boyer kurt sander Latin liturgical adventures liturgical architecture liturgical music liturgical texts and translation liturgy liturgy and life lycourgos angelopoulos medieval byzantine chant Metropolitan PHILIP militant americanist orthodoxy modern byzantine architecture modern greek music music as iconography my kids will latin and greek when they're newborns my kids will learn latin and greek when they're newborns orthodox architecture orthodox architecture is bloody expensive Orthodox choir schools Orthodox Ecclesiology orthodox outreach orthodox travel pascha at the singing school Patriarchate of Antioch Patriarch IGNATIUS IV Patriarch of Antioch publishing random acts of chant richard barrett in greece richard toensing rod dreher sacred music st. vlads st john of damascus society Syriac the Bishop MARK fan club the convert dilemma the dark knight The Episcopacy The Episcopate the only good language is a dead language this american church life travel we need more american saints why do we need beautiful music in churches?

Blog Stats

  • 227,511 hits

Flickr Photos

Advertisements