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Posts Tagged 'mark bailey'

Reminiscences from PSALM, Chicago, 2-5 August 2006

A comment prompted me to look up a series of e-mail I sent to the members of my choir from the thus far one-and-only PSALM national conference held back in August of 2006. This was back in the days before I had a blog. I sent these to my choir partially because I wanted them to engage some of the things I was hearing while I was there; truth be told, I’m not sure they all understood why they were getting long e-mails from me. Such is life.

Reading through them, it seemed perhaps worthwhile to share some of those notes here. My perception — and someone can correct me if I’m wrong — is that PSALM peaked with this event; I think there was talk back then about trying to set up regional PSALM identities and events and then do a regular national conference every other year, but none of that ever happened, for better or for worse. My experience with the PSALM Yahoo! group in its present form is that the ideals expressed five and a half years ago are by no means universally held these days, or even necessarily approved of. I can’t really say for sure I understand what’s going on there, but there we go.

Anyway, without further ado —

Day 1: Hello from Chicago! Day 1 has been packed with a lot of stuff that hopefully will be useful for all of us in the long run, and the days to come look similarly stuffed. The Indiana representation has been significant: the opening remarks were from Fr. Sergei Glagolev, an Indiana native; Vicki Pappas and Fr. Joseph Morris (from Ss. Constantine & Elena in Indy) were both part of a panel discussion; the Paraklesis service was sung by IU alum Jessica Suchy-Pilalis; and I finally had the occasion to meet Lori Branch, about whom I have heard so much over the years. She sends along her love and best wishes to all who might remember her.

We had a rehearsal for the Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, and about two-thirds of the conference participants are making up the choir–that is, probably somewhere around 100 people. It’s like the Sunday of Orthodoxy choir, only about four times the size. In the enormous nave that St. George in Cicero has, one is bathing in the sound when all of sing. It’s quite something. Mark Bailey, one of the instructors in liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s, is conducting the conference choir–and it might be worth mentioning that, when we looked at the “Lord, have mercy” sections, the first thing he did was tell us to drop the r in the word “Lord” so that it came out “Lohd”. Just so you know that it’s not that I’m crazy. (Well, not just that I’m crazy, anyway.)

The Paraklesis service was lovely–unison women’s chant from Dr. Suchy-Pilalis and one other. Really very beautiful.

I’ll have a full account of all the goings-on later, but there are a number of things panelists and clergy said which I’m chewing on already. Some of them are pretty challenging and clear-cut in terms of communicating a strong point of view and expectation:

“There is no such thing as a quick fix, only hard work… We have to have the ability to change, because when things don’t change, they’re dead.”–Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Fr. Sergei also challenged us to think about what we want to pass on to the next generation in terms of singing in church.

Fr. Joseph stressed the need for the choir to be dignified and sober, and to have a servant mentality–that we come on time, and we are prepared. “If you can’t make it on time, you can’t make it on time,” he said. “Better to sing with the faithful in that case. You’re not a bishop.” He also noted that, in his parish, there is the expectation that the singers treat Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy as one piece–that is, if someone is singing in the choir for Divine Liturgy, he expects them to have been there for Vespers and Matins as well. “My expectation is that my singers are Orthodox in practice as well as name,” he said.

Valerie Yova, PSALM president, observed that, in general, there is a lack of effective musical leadership in the Church in this country, and noted the following symptoms/factors:

  • Choirs are shrinking and aging
  • People are living further and further away from where they go to church
  • School music programs are dying
  • Parishes are falling into financial trouble
  • There are an almost impossibly small number of places to be trained as an Orthodox church musician
  • The old chanting masters are dying and not being replaced
  • The musical element of worship is being devalued

The panel discussion (David Drillock, Fr. Joseph, Fr. John Rallis, Fr. Lawrence Margitich, Fr. John Finley, Alice Hughes, Carol Wetmore, Rachel Troy, and Vicki) observed that synergy between choir director, singers, and clergy requires time and regular effort, and e-mail cannot be all there is. To that end, not only are regular rehearsals vital, but clerical involvement in rehearsals on some regular basis is also important. Vicki Pappas made the point that volunteerism cannot be an obstacle to excellence, that church musicians have a sacred role, that of being responsible for leading the people’s worship, and that this should inspire us to better things. Fr. Joseph followed this up by saying, cf. St. John Climacus, “If it is possible for one, it is possible for all.” One priest (Fr. Lawrence Margitich, I think) put it this way: we shouldn’t confuse volunteerism with stewardship. As church singers, we are stewards of God’s talents, not mere volunteers, and we should act and think of ourselves accordingly. David Drillock, choirmaster emeritus at St. Vladimir’s expressed this by saying that being in the choir should be a “high calling”.

Other nuggets from the panel: if we as singers are truly connected to the text we’re singing, it will be communicated to the congregation naturally. Also that the church school should be excellent recruiting ground for the choir. Fr. Joseph also suggested that congregational singing should not drag the Liturgy down; it should appropriately done and led. Dovetailing onto that, Vicki suggested a clear intent with respect to which sections we should encourage the congregation to sing, and those which we intend the choir to sing. Having said that, the panel followed that up by saying that it is foolish to replace something people love unless one knows it’s being replaced with something they’ll love at least as much.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s, minced no words: “I disagree that dead things don’t change. Rather, dead things become more rotten, corrupted and stinky.” He also issued a rather direct challenge: “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.”

In aid of this sentiment, he told the following story: a parish started talking about buying a new chandelier. It came to the parish council, and one person stood up and said, “I am absolutely against this. We don’t need a chandelier, we don’t want a chandelier, and we can’t pay for a chandelier.” The priest asked, well, what do you mean? “It’s too expensive,” the man said, “and we don’t even know where to buy one.” (Scattered laughter from the audience.) He went on: “Plus, there’s nobody in the parish who can play one, and it’s not even part of our tradition anyway.” (More laughter from the audience.) He finished by saying, “I just can’t understand why we’re talking about buying a chandelier when what we really need is more light!” (Peals of laughter from the audience.)

Like I said, all very challenging stuff, but there was a truly remarkable consistency to the message I heard today. It’s going to take me a while to process all of it, but there was one more thing that was stressed today, and I’ll close with that for now–

Fr. Thomas Hopko also said that, as church musicians, in terms of purpose and practice, we must start no other place than Christ crucified and glorified, that it is only by starting there we will end up in the right place. In the same vein, the panel also reminded us of Metropolitan +ANTHONY Bashir’s insistence that, once love is manifested, all things are possible.

All of these things are worth thinking about, and I encourage you all to do so as well.

More to come on Day 2.

Day 2: Again, too much to summarize in one e-mail, but a small handful of highlights:

First two presentations this morning were from Fr. Ephrem Lash, who looks and sounds like Gandalf as portrayed by Ian McKellen (and who has a wonderful website, http://www.anastasis.org.uk), who is also a scholar from England (I believe he is a colleague of Bp. KALLISTOS Ware, but I could be mistaken) who has quite a bit to say about translations of the Bible and liturgical texts into English, and Mark Bailey, instructor of liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s. The topic for both was the fittingness of English as a liturgical language, the necessary approach to translating texts, and then how best to set these texts to music so that a) the meaning is communicated and b) the musical tradition is carried on. Both had wonderful things to say about the necessary principles to make these things work. Before the first presentation, we sang “O Heavenly King”, and Fr. Ephrem noted that the setting took the word “impurity” and placed the stress on the last syllable, making it “impuriTEE”. “In the language I speak, English, it’s pronounced ‘imPURity’,” he observed. Mark Bailey had all kinds of fantastic practical examples of good text-setting and bad text-setting, and further suggested, “We’ve gotten our parishioners and singers too used to bad settings, and they’ve become attached to them as a result.” Fr. Thomas Hopko then commented, “Most of our churches are just copying what they’ve heard on recordings. Can we put out new recordings that do it the way you’re talking about?” Something to think about.

The second morning session consisted of presentations from the various heads of jurisdictional sacred music departments as to what they’re up to–Chris Holwey from the Antiochian Archdiocese, David Drillock from the OCA, and Vicki Pappas from the Greek Archdiocese. While interesting, I found it fascinatingly unnecessary to have such redundancy. All three of them are essentially doing the exact same job, providing the exact same resources in exactly the same manner. One fervently hopes that eventually there will be no need for multiple separate departments of sacred music.

The afternoon panel I attended was on the topic, “Educating Liturgical Musicians in the 21st Century.” Vladimir Morosan, a musicologist who specializes in the Russian repertoire, was the moderator. He framed the panel discussion by asking, “How do we explain that the oldest and richest singing tradition in Christendom does so little to formally prepare liturgical musicians? What do we do about it?”

Anne Schoepp, a choir director in the OCA in California, argued passionately that Orthodoxy is a singing culture, and we need to do everything we can at the parish level to start our kids singing and to get them used to singing and loving singing. Fr. John Finley of our own Archdiocese suggested that the model of the Classical School that is starting to pop up in Orthodox circles could be a way to disseminate this kind of curriculum; I suggested that there’s an even more obvious answer, the tradition of the choir school as it still survives in England and even some places here in the US like the St. Thomas Choir School in New York and the Cathedral Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. “Let’s talk,” Fr. John said.

However we do it, the panel continued, people need to be immersed in good liturgy in order to be able to do good liturgy–it must be soaked in, the liturgical aesthetic must be ingrained in us. To this end, one panelist said, the power of the priest cannot be underestimated in terms of cultivating potential–kids as well as adults need to come to events like this, for example.

After the afternoon panel was choir rehearsal; Mark Bailey is very exact, and it’s a real learning experience to watch him conduct. It continues to be something else having a 100-voice choir singing in a church where the acoustics are as favorable as they are here. Then Vespers, where a small ensemble sang the stichera and whatnot, not dissimilar from what usually happens at All Saints.

After dinner was a concert performed by a group called the St. Romanos Cappella (as opposed to Cappella Romana, a completely different ensemble), singing a program entirely of music by modern Orthodox composers–all but one of whom were in the audience. Tikey Zes (who composed our All Saints troparion), Ivan Moody, Kurt Sander (formerly of Indiana University Southeast), James Green (the one not in attendance), Mark Bailey (man, the guy is everywhere), and Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Each one of them brings something different to the table, but it was all wonderful. It would be nice to learn several of these (particularly the Glagolev, Sander, and Bailey material), because it would be a shame to have all of this beautiful music out there representing a living continuation of the tradition and then have it never actually be sung in our churches. It would also be especially nice to finish learning Fr. Sergei’s setting of Psalm 103/104 for Vespers; now having heard what it actually sounds like in a church and not just on a recording, I’m more convinced of this. (And Bp. MARK already approved it back in December, which is handy.) Besides Psalm 103/104, they also sang one of his settings of the Cherubic Hymn, the Anaphora, the Megalynarion, and the Alleluia before the Gospel (including the refrains), and it was made very evident what a treasure trove his liturgical music actually is. He received a standing ovation at the end of it–surely every composer there deserved one, but he was quite appropriately the man of the hour. It was very moving.

After a looooooooooooooooooong, far-reaching conversation with Dn. Kevin Smith, choirmaster at St. Vlad’s, we managed to miss the shuttle back to the hotel and had to get a ride back from a Bulgarian woman named Danielle. And now it’s time for me to fall over and go to sleep. More to come tomorrow.

Day 3: There was a lot of theoretical stuff talked about today. I found it fascinating, but there’s little I can just summarize into an anecdote. Mark Bailey again had interesting things to say on a variety of topics; one issue he described was that of a common faith not necessarily uniting the Orthodox into a common sense of heritage. In terms of what that means musically–well, for many of us who are converts, “all Orthodox music is music for all Orthodox”, but that’s a very unique attitude to some (by no means all) American converts. He noted that in Russia right now there’s an argument over what kind of liturgical music from their various indigenous traditions (common chant, znamenny, etc.) will adequately represent the Russian culture. In this country, we have the opposite problem–we as yet have no indigenous Orthodox musical tradition, and so are trying to determine what bits and pieces from other national practices will best express Orthodoxy as it exists in America. Do we do a little bit of everything and make it a “checklist”-style approach? Do we pick one thing–Byzantine chant, Russian 4-part chant, whatever–and try to make it our own?

Mark Bailey is really big on liturgical singing doing no more and no less than supporting the liturgical action. That is, that liturgical singing either prepares for, accompanies, or is a liturgical action or rite. To do something other than one of these three things is, therefore, not liturgical and therefore spurious as far as this context is concerned. To that end, he says, musical form should elaborate on, and therefore draw the member of the congregation in to, a sacred action. At the same time, David Drillock two days ago reminded us that a large part of what we do is “proclamatory”–the exact opposite of drawing somebody in. I’m coming to the conclusion after hearing all of this discussed for two days that, as is so often the case in Orthodoxy, it cannot be “either/or”–it must be “both/and”. Part of its musical beauty come from the way in which the liturgical event is supported, and part of its ability to support the liturgical event must come from its beauty.

See what I mean about a lot of theoretical stuff?

One really practical thing he said with which I really agree is the idea that we need to not turn antiphons into anthemic pieces–they are a liturgical dialogue, not a big choral moment. What does that mean for us at All Saints? I don’t know yet; as it is we have a soloist sing the verse followed by the choir singing the refrain. What about this–rather than soloist plus choir, maybe it’s something like having the men intone one verse, the choir sings the refrain, the women intone the next verse, choir sings the refrain, etc.? We will play with possibilities at future rehearsals.

The afternoon panel, “Where do we go from here?” was interesting. People talked about a number of things, from PSALM formally getting behind issues like jurisdictional unity and a standardized English translation, to spearheading an English musical setting of the entire Octoechos (using, of course, this as-yet nonexistent “American chant” as the medium), to devising a music curriculum for use in parish schools. I think there are all kinds of things we can accomplish, we just need to think big. One of the issues, of course, is that in the past it has been possible for these issues to be solved in a “top-down” manner; the patriarchate or synod or whatever ruling body standardizes the practice/text/chant/whatever and promulgates it. The reality in this country, however, is that we’re having to solve many of these problems from the grassroots level on up. There’s a lot of “rolling our own” that takes place (as I found out earlier this week when I thought I needed a hierarchical “Before Thy Cross” and couldn’t find one to save my life), simply by necessity, because if we don’t do it, nobody else will.

Vespers was lovely. The large conference choir sang everything, and it was something. Being able to worship together (and commune together, tomorrow morning) is what makes this more than just a conference.

The evening panel, on composing liturgical settings for the English language, was made up of Ivan Moody, Fr. John Finley, Fr. Ephrem Lash, Mark Bailey, Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Vladimir Morosan, Tikey Zes, and Nicolas Resanovic. All I can say is–to have all of these people in one room was simply stunning. Not just their brilliance and talent, but their clear love for God and the Church as well. Ivan Moody provided a deft touch of dry, droll Englishness as the moderator. He provided a wonderful quote from St. John Chrysostom: “The tongue is made holy by the words when spoken by a ready and eager mind.”

There was a question where somebody described the situation of somebody coming up to the kliros or into the choir and being told, “Here’s the music for this service. We don’t actually do it that way, but here’s the music.” Big understanding laugh from the audience.

There was a fascinating moment where someone stood up and said, “You know, I’m from the Deep South. The South is a ripe field for Orthodox evangelism–the people there are crying out for the truth. Culturally, however, if we don’t bring it to them in English, their English, they are not going to care what we have to say.” This prompted Mark Bailey to remind us that, in this country, we are a missionary church with a missionary imperative, and that must inform what we do musically.

And then that, as they say, was that.

Day 4: Day 4 was short and sweet. With a 7:30am Matins service, I had to wake up at 6 to check out of the hotel. They did Matins and Liturgy as separate services, as opposed to Matins running right into Liturgy. There was a pause of a few minutes as Mark Bailey got set up to conduct the conference choir, and as the octet (into which I was roped) got into our places.

I may quibble with some (but by no means all) of the settings that were selected (I’ll be honest–the Russian chant in English is very jarring to my ear), but I have to say, having that 150 piece choir singing most of it and getting to sing in the octet that did the rest, in that church, with that conductor, was absolutely something else. I wish you all could have been there to take part, and my hope is that when this happens again, perhaps more of us can go. Fr. John Finley celebrated and homilized; it being the Pre-Feast of the Transfiguration, that was his topic. He started out with the quote from the Gospel reading, “It is good to be here.” It was quite apt. He exhorted us to “embrace the struggle” that we have adopted over the last few days, which was well-taken.

And that was that, more or less. There were some parting remarks at breakfast, and I think a lot of people are coming away from this event feeling like it was something seminal, that there has been good seed sown. Time will tell how God’s hand is in all of this, but one way or the other, it seems that the conference has exceeded everybody’s expectations.

A funny anecdote and a really cool thing: I went up to Fr. Ephrem Lash (the priest who looked and sounded like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf) and asked for a blessing. He sized me up and said (you’ll have to imagine the Ian McKellen-like voice), “Young man, did you receive Holy Communion this morning?”

“Yes, Father.”

“You never ask for the priest’s blessing after receiving Communion. You never ask for a blessing or kiss an icon. You have the Lord inside of you, so what can they possibly add? The Russians and the Arabs have gotten very bad about this.” I took it in stride, because I’m aware that it is an issue where there is not uniformity of practice or opinion. It was funny nonetheless. I then told him that I found his talk very edifying and he said, “Ah, ‘edifying.’ I never mean to edify, my boy; I only wish to make people laugh.”

So there we have it. Thanks for reading my ramblings; I just wanted to make sure that you all knew for sure I was where I said I was going to be, and hadn’t just taken off for Hawaii or something for a few days. If anybody wants to know more about anything I’ve talked about (or anything I haven’t, for that matter), let me know, I’d love to talk about it, particularly now while the memories are all still fresh.

In Christ,

Richard

 

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The Sander/Lapaev sessions, 1-4 August 2010

About six years ago or so maybe, while I, then a catechumen (sort of), was poking around the Internet in a reasonably ill-advised attempt to give myself an online crash course in Orthodox liturgical music, I discovered the website of a composer named Kurt Sander. His dissertation, The Musical Icon, sounded fascinating, but most importantly, he was working on a song cycle for tenor. At the time, I was hoping to put together a recital of song cycles by Orthodox composers — my godfather had written one for me, my friend Jonathan Wey was working on something, and John Muehleisen also had a cycle he had written for high baritone he thought he could rework for tenor for me. (The recital never happened, by the way, but it was a nice thought.)

Then I started reading through some of the scores of choral music posted on Kurt’s website. I didn’t exactly have a wide range of Orthodox musical experience with which to compare it, but it seemed like really nice, sensitively-set, singable music and the kind of thing that would be worth looking at more if I ever were conducting my own choir. Being who I am, I sent him an unsolicited e-mail asking where I might be able to find a copy of his dissertation and when his song cycle might be done.

I think I probably pestered him for about a year before he finally sent me a copy of his dissertation, and he also said that he would let me know when the song cycle was finished. I would have just bought a copy from ProQuest, except they didn’t (and still don’t) appear to have access to it to distribute.

In June of 2005, four months after my chrismation, the St. Vlad’s touring ensemble was coming through the Midwest. At the time, I was seriously considering trying to enroll at SVS for fall of 2006 for sacred music, and it seemed like a good idea to catch one of their stops. The closest they were coming to Bloomington was Cincinnati, however, and I found this out on the day of the concert. Well, turned out Cincinnati was a lot closer to Bloomington than I had realized, all of two and a half hours, and so I, Megan, the previously-mentioned Jonathan Wey, and our friend Paul Bauer all hopped in the car at the last minute and headed off to Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Cincinnati.

While there, somebody walked in who looked really familiar, and I realized — hey! That’s Kurt Sander! After the evening’s proceedings were over, I went up and introduced myself. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Richard Barrett, the guy who was bugging you for a copy of your dissertation.” He looked blank for a moment, and then laughed. “Oh, yeah, I know who you are,” he said. “Nice to meet you.” We chatted a little bit, but before long we needed to get back on the road, so that was that.

A little over a year later, I was at the PSALM national conference in Chicago, and part of the program was a concert sung by the St. Romanos Cappella, including the music of Fr. Ivan Moody, Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Mark Bailey, and — what do you know — Kurt Sander. Hearing his settings actually sung by a choir and not just in the limitations of my own head, I started to get a sense of just what he had actually accomplished — they easily stood with the best of what was presented. He was actually there for the performance and the conference, and I made a point of saying hello.

That was the summer that Fr. Athanasius got his knees replaced so he could go start another mission retired from All Saints, and while I was planning the music for the dinner in his honor, I decided that doing Kurt’s settings of “O Gladsome Light” and the Prayer of St. Symeon would be nice to do with a quartet. This meant leaving some divisi out, unfortunately, but I had learned enough to know by this point that more than 4 parts was quite beyond where my full choir was for the moment. They turned out really beautifully even with the missing parts, and while things being what they were there was no way I would ever be able to use them liturgically at All Saints without big things changing, I made a mental note that this really was The Good Stuff. Even if it wasn’t “what everybody knows” (a very peculiar category of music I’m always hearing about, but which always seems to refer to different music depending on who’s talking), it probably should be, and this is where I was coming from in my brief mention of Kurt in the review of Cappella Romana’s Richard Toensing disc a couple of years ago.

In March of this year, I got an e-mail from Kurt, saying that in August he was moving ahead with a recording project of his music as well as that of Russian composer Gennadiy Lapaev, had funding to bring singers out for it, and would I be interested in participating? Well, that was a no-brainer. Once I knew for sure I was going to be in the States over the summer, I sent him my commitment letter. (Incidentally, this also opened the door for something else, which I hope to able to talk about here very shortly.)

On Sunday after Divine Liturgy, I hopped in the car and headed off to Northern Kentucky University, with no real idea what to expect beyond making music. Except for Kurt, I didn’t know if I was going to know anybody there — I had an idea of a few people who might be there, but I was going into unfamiliar territory, one way or the other.

As I walked into the NKU dorm to check in, the fire alarm went off. This involved standing out in the hot sun for 20 minutes while firefighters determined that somebody had burned popcorn. There were others standing outside who were chatting as though they knew each other and looked like they could plausibly be there to record Russian Orthodox choral music, but it was sort of the wrong context to try to insert myself.

Dinner, on the other hand, where there was air conditioning, food, and wine, was a much better context, and while as it worked out I really didn’t know anybody else there besides Kurt, by the end of the meal I had met several people. Gregg Staples from St. Andrew’s Cathedral (MP) in Philadelphia, Nicholas Androsoff from St. Nicholas Cathedral (ROCOR) in Montreal, Zhenya Temidis and Maria Greendyk from Holy Virgin Protection Church (ROCOR) in New York — and this was just for starters. There was also a non-Orthodox contingent, made up of NKU students and singers from the Cincinnati scene — Anna Egan, Will Huffer, Tim Oliver, and Tim Bruno were people I met from amongst this group.

A pattern perhaps emerges from the above paragraph, and it was clear pretty fast that amongst the Orthodox contingent, I was the only Antiochian (in the sense of AOCNA being my “home jurisdiction” — there was a Bulgarian woman there, Sasha Rascia, whose husband directs the choir at an AOCNA parish in Chicago), I was one of two New Calendar people (the other was a guy from an OCA parish in Cleveland), and everybody else was MP or ROCOR — I’m also pretty sure I was the only person whose principal exposure with the liturgical texts has been in English rather than Slavonic.

And you know what? I had a ball. The four days I spent singing, eating, and drinking with the crazy Old Calendar Russians were absolutely great, even if I couldn’t sing along with the 100 Greatest Russian Drinking Songs.

The music was glorious, and singing it with a 40-piece (well, 39) underscored for many of us just how glorious it was. Lapaev’s and Kurt’s music complemented each other well, and Lapaev even went so far as to say, at our last dinner together, that “Kurt Sander is the most talented composer in the Russian Orthodox Church.” Not “Russian Orthodox Church in America” or “Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia,” but “Russian Orthodox Church.” Even for people who have known Kurt for years, there was an oft-expressed reaction of “I never knew what your music really sounded like before now!”

We got everything recorded in the 24 hours of recording time we had, which was a major accomplishment — we had received an e-mail from the conductor a week or so beforehand that told us cuts were likely, it was extremely ambitious to think we could get through all twenty selections in so little time, and if we didn’t already know our music by the time we arrived we were going to be sunk. Nevertheless, despite some pieces taking some more time than others, we still got through everything with a half hour left on the schedule. It remains to be seen if everything winds up on the finished product, but I felt like we were in pretty good shape at the end of the last session.

The conductor was Dr. Peter Jermihov, the conductor of the aforementioned St. Romanos Cappella, to whom I had been introduced once in passing at PSALM. He has a personal history with Kurt and his wife Larissa, but Kurt also made it clear from the get-go that musically, there was nobody else to whom he would want to entrust the direction of this project, and I can see why. Dr. Jermihov brought a lifetime of experience with the Russian choral idiom to the table, and was a fantastic, expressive conductor. He had some crazy ways of getting things across, but they worked.

The tenor section was a real joy to sing with; behind me was Gregg, the choir director from Philadelphia, a big man with a big beautiful voice. We got to know each other a bit; he had a goal to visit all fifty states by the age of fifty, and since Cincinnati is so close to the Indiana border I drove him to St. Leon, just a few miles across the state line. There wasn’t much to see there (particularly at 10:30 at night), and the picture didn’t exactly turn out so that the sign that said “Hoosier Liquor” was readable, but it was one more state for him and good company regardless. To my right was Nicky Kotar from the ROCOR cathedral in San Francisco (who is also the nephew of the priest at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seattle, the very first Orthodox church in which I ever set foot). Nicholas Androsoff, the Montreal choir director, also sang in the tenor section, as did Scott Wyatt, a member of the NKU voice faculty who had a rather illustrious career on the operatic stage before becoming a voice teacher and a pastor. A lot of different kinds of voices, but I think we were able to sing together well.

I’ll also note that the bass section, between one Vadim Gan (apparently the protodeacon at the ROCOR cathedral in Chicago, and who sang the petitions in the Great Litany for the recording), Will, my suitemate Joseph Milos of Chicago, Kurt himself, and others, was a singularity. How is it that you can have a section where the second basses are droning away on a highly present low B flat, and yet it’s still possible for them to go flat in the course of a run-through? How in the world can there be room for it to sag any lower? And yet these guys had enough under there for that to be possible. Any chance I could convince any of them to move to Bloomington and switch to Byzantine chant? Probably not. Oh well.

Larissa, Kurt’s wife, was amazing, I have to say. She was functioning as the “project manager,” as often happens — Flesh of My Flesh has often been in the same role for my crazy schemes — as well as singing in the soprano section. The amount of work she put in during those four days was incredible, and I daresay her dedication to the project matched her husband’s. She was kind enough to give me Advil and supply me with Orthodox thank you cards (one of which went right back to her). I found out over the course of the stay that she is a music educator who works with young children, which perked my interest. I chatted with her briefly about the choir school idea; she seemed to get it, and even expressed some interest in helping me develop the idea further. We’ll see if it goes anywhere, but regardless, the recording effort would have been over before it ever begun without Larissa.

I had a couple of good conversations with Kurt while I was out there. He still hopes to finish the tenor song cycle, and he also talked about how he went with ROCOR when he converted because he felt it was necessary to receive the Tradition in an Orthodox cultural context, rather than as an abstraction over which any sheen could be laid. He said he struggled with that for a few years, but he’s become very much at home in a Russian cultural setting — “I feel like they’re my people,” he said. (I suppose it helps that his wife’s family is Russian.) We also discussed his music and the development of the recording project a bit  — in terms of assembling singers, he said that it was very important to him to have good voices, yes, but also to have singers who knew life at the kliros and who understood what this music meant. He filled it out from there with ringers as needed, but that was where he felt it was necessary to start. What’s interesting, and I told him this, is that while his music is obviously within a Slavic idiom, there are touches here and there where it’s going to be hard to know exactly what to do with it as a singer if you haven’t sung, say, Palestrina. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s my love of counterpoint coming out.” In this sense, I suppose this is where one can point to his music as a melding of styles. On the one hand, I’d be really curious to know what an Anglican choir might make of it, on the other hand, I fear that their approach would make it a bit sterile. Ideally, I guess you’d have singers doing it who can go back and forth between the Russian idiom and Renaissance polyphony. I think the mix of people we had made it work, but I also think that what he’s written presents some unique challenges. I must say that I would love to be able to present Kurt’s music in a liturgical context — but I’d also love to have a choir, a church building, and the kind of liturgical practice where it would be possible for it to fit in liturgically. All in good time, I guess.

It was interesting hearing perceptions of the OCA from some of the MP/ROCOR people; there were a couple of people who pretty consistently described OCA musical practice as “dry,” “white,” “flat,” etc. In all fairness, it was also pretty clear that these were folks who were quite accustomed to an approach that they called “with glory,” but might perhaps might strike OCA people as “bombastic.”

Which brings me to the following observation: there was nothing joyless, humorless, or austere about these people. It was pretty clear from watching them interact over food, drink, and song that the stereotype of Russian Orthodox as this cold, frowning, silent people is just not the whole story. The cultural context that Kurt was talking about isn’t sackcloth, ashes, brown rice, and harsh winters. For the after party Wednesday night, we went to an Austrian-themed brewhouse in Cincinnati that had an accordion band playing with drums and amplification — and between beers, vodka shots (courtesy Kurt’s father-in-law), laughter and drinking songs, the Russian Orthodox table drowned out the house band with ease. I’m not saying I know what they’d be like during Lent, but I think I definitely got a taste of what they’re like for Pascha.

My summer has been bookended by musical experiences, one with Greeks and one with Russians. I think for those of us who might specialize to some extent in a particular idiom but who are able to switch to another if need be, it’s a worthy thing to be able to lend support, build bridges and be a good colleague to all sides, at least as far as is possible. Being a specialist is fine; I’m not sure about being a partisan.

All in all, this recording project was a wonderful experience and a real blessing. I expect that it will take 1-2 years or so for the CD to actually come out, but I’m really looking forward to hearing it (although, as I told Kurt, ethically I can’t really write a review of it!). Details will be available here, of course, as soon as I have them. I hope for future collaborations with all of these people, whatever they might be. Larissa said as I was leaving on Wednesday that the way things such as this are really built on is through the connections that are made — we’ll just have to see what that winds up looking like. Thank you Kurt, Larissa, Maestro Jermihov, Maestro Lapaev, Jonathan (“JONATHAN!”) the recording engineer, and absolutely everybody else there who helped make this so memorable.

(And a very special thanks, before I forget, to Alix Ptichka for translating one of my thank you cards into Russian.)

Sunday of Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy in America

This last Sunday, being the first Sunday in Great Lent, was the so-called “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” commemorating the victory of iconodules over iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (“Nicea II — The Wrath of Arius”). In years past, there has been a Sunday evening Vespers in Indianapolis, participated in by all the area clergy and their parishes. This year, instead of Vespers, a morning Divine Liturgy was planned at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, who had just started worshiping in their new building in December.

All Saints’ participation was determined rather late in the game; being an hour and twenty minutes south, and with some of our parishioners commuting from as much as an hour away even further south, it took some figuring out. Ultimately our deacon stayed behind and served a Typika for those who weren’t going to Indianapolis, allowing Fr. Peter to concelebrate and a group of us from All Saints to attend.

The morning was stunning in several respects. For the occasion, a new icon was commissioned of All Saints of North America, which now includes Indiana-born St. Barnabas. The original was put out for us to venerate, and we were all given prints of it as well. I’ve jokingly called Holy Trinity’s new building the satellite campus of Hagia Sophia, but it really is frickin’ huge. As the pictures make clear, I think we had close to a thousand people in there, and people were still having to gather in the narthex. We had everybody, too (among the clergy as well as the people); Serbians, Greeks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, American converts, and even a handful of Copts, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Indians. (Okay, I’m not sure we had any Finns or Estonians.) The communion of the faithful easily took half an hour, and that was with six chalices, I believe. Add another twenty minutes or so for the communion of the clergy.

Some general observations: Holy Trinity is an example of a church which I think would be too big for me to be comfortable in it as my home parish. It is a beautiful building, and it will only get more beautiful as they fresco it, marble the floors, put up the iconostasis, etc., but I’d rather see the design principles applied to a church maybe a quarter of the size. (This begs the question of why Holy Trinity, which I believe has something like 600 people, doesn’t plant some churches, but never mind that now.) I’ve heard it suggested that past 250 souls or so, you really overtax a priest’s ability to minister; I’ll throw out another possible metric, which is that you don’t want the building to be any larger than that in which the cantor can sing comfortably and be understood and heard without needing a microphone. (This assumes that churches are being built with attention to acoustics, which isn’t even necessarily the case with Holy Trinity, unfortunately — there were one or two odd decisions made on that front.) That said, I think it’s wonderful that a traditional-looking Byzantine temple now exists which is large enough to hold everybody in the metro area. I somewhat wonder if perhaps, with Detroit being, well, Detroit, there might not be talk behind the scenes of moving Metropolitan Nicholas’ throne to Indianapolis, hence the building being a size more appropriate to a cathedral than a parish church.

I wound up joining the choir; Max Murphy, my counterpart at Ss. Constantine and Elena, conducts the choir for these big combined services and I sing for him when I am able. The music was, more or less, OCA music with some simplified Byzantine things reworked for a large ensemble. My trouble is that the Orthodox musical heritage is so much richer than the utility music which tends to dominate services like this, but the reason why it dominates services like this is because it is easily scalable to huge ensembles (as well as makes congregational singing reasonably easy). Mark Bailey once told me that Kievan common chant is great because you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes; on the other hand, he freely admitted, the downside of Kievan common chant is that you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes. There wasn’t an overabundance of Kievan common chant at this service, but the principle was still largely the same. At any rate, it was, mostly, the music that virtually everybody in the Indianapolis area sings except Holy Trinity (and All Saints, for that matter), so it was familiar to Max, the majority of the choir, and a good chunk of the congregation.

There were some interesting moments during the procession of the icons; Fr. Taso (the pastor of Holy Trinity) originally asked the congregation to all sing the litany responses in their own languages, in the spirit of our coming together as a symbol of our unity as Orthodox Christians. This didn’t quite work the way he intended, so ultimately he led us in the Tone 4 threefold English “Lord, have mercy” common to Greek parishes (and Antiochian parishes during Holy Week if one is following Kazan). That worked just fine (although it was different from the responses the choir prepared — Max gave up when he realized that Fr. Taso was going off-script).

One always wonders what happens behind the scenes when that many clergy gather on another priest’s turf, particularly when the event functions something of a “coming out party” for said turf, but Fr. Peter made a point of bringing up that very question last night after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. “It was very peaceful, as surprising as that sounds,” he said. “Fr. Taso called us all together and said, ‘Brothers, what do you want to do?’ To have the protos do something like that, particularly at a Greek church, is unheard of.” (When there were some inevitable uncomfortable chuckles, he said, “That’s not a swipe against the Greeks — they’d tell you the same thing!”)

Given events of the last few weeks, there have been conversations about what Orthodox unity in America means, if it can even happen at all now, if we’re looking a big step backwards, what’s the path from here, etc. etc. etc. I think that to some extent these nervous questions are a bit misguided; it’s not exactly like the AOCNA and OCA were preparing to announce an administrative merger next week and the news out of Damascus derailed it at the last second. However, I think we can look at events like this Sunday of Orthodoxy Divine Liturgy and make some informed guesses about what the practical side of jurisdictional unity might look like.

  • Somebody’s going to have to be the protos, as it were, and it’s probably going to be whoever has the resources to be so effectively, including the space to be a meeting ground for everybody. This was true in 1975 when Met. PHILIP and Met. MICHAEL unified the Antiochian churches in this country, and Met. MICHAEL stepped down; it will still be true going forward.
  • Along similar lines, there will be a group who is numerically dominant. There were ten or so parishes represented at Holy Trinity this last Sunday, and at least half of the congregation was Holy Trinity’s own people.
  • It will be up to the group who is numerically dominant and who functions as the “protos” to be a loving and welcoming brother in Christ. It will be up to the others to be receptive to that, and to return it in-kind.
  • It might be a bit of a cacophony for awhile until people figure things out. The job of the dominant group will be to help guide everybody into unity, and to do so in love.

Looking at these points, I’d argue this wouldn’t be a bad model for how things should be now, even, with or without unity on paper.

One other thought for the moment. That icon of All Saints of North America? A couple of them are American born; some of them were active in America. However, with the exception of St. Peter the Aleut (who was martyred young), none of those saints were both born here and active here. Let me suggest that before we have an indigenous church, we’re going to need indigenous saints. Some might argue that we should start with Fr. Seraphim Rose (which reminds me — I’m reading The Soul After Death right now); while recognizing he’s a controversial figure, I don’t really think that it’s in question that he is a native-born model of sanctity. I personally think he is a saint, and I believe he interceded to heal my mother from a heart issue a few years back, but I also think it will take time for the amen of American faithful to be uttered. I know a priest, and perhaps a bishop or two, who I believe might be glorified after their respective reposes. I have heard some suggest Lynette Hoppe; certainly this book seems designed to make that case. There are others I can think of, too.

My point is, until there are models of holiness who have been raised up out of “our people,” as it were, I’m not sure it makes any sense to be so neurotic and anxious about our earthly organization. Once we start producing saints, administrative questions will take care of themselves. The importance of saints who are local and recent, I have come to realize, is that they shine forth the light of Christ in a way that is immediate. What is more powerful, reading a story about somebody who supposedly did something fifteen hundred years ago, or hearing first-hand accounts of people who did those very things within the last few years? We run a great risk by holding ourselves at a distance from saints — they are less convicting that way, I suppose, meaning they’re more comfortable to be around, but they are also less compelling and convincing.

In other words — if we want a solution to the jurisdictional problem in this country, maybe what we need to do is, before we write a letter or join a lay activist organization or start a blog (all potentially worthy things to do, don’t get me wrong), we need to go out and be saints.

We will see.


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