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Posts Tagged 'Nativity'

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.

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Kanon of St. Kosmas for the Nativity of Christ by Jessica Suchy-Pilalis

Happy new year! Christ is baptized! For those of you on the Old Calendar — well, hope Nativity Eve is treating you well and you get all the All-Night Vigil you’re able to handle. Theophany falls on Sunday next year on the New Calendar, and I’ve suggested to the priest here that we do a full All-Night Vigil for it. I’m not sure how seriously he took it, and I’m not sure how seriously I meant it, but we’ll see. I figure if you start at 9pm, you’re done by 5am, and then you just sleep all day. What’s the problem?

It is a bit late, and I have been somewhat otherwise occupied to give this the full attention it deserved before Christmas, but in all fairness it didn’t come to my attention until rather late in the game in the first place. Dr. Jessica Suchy-Pilalis — herself an IU alumna — has published her setting of the first Nativity canon using Archimandrite Ephrem Lash’s translation, having recomposed the melodies by applying the Byzantine compositional principles to the English text. While I’m not enough of an expert in the formulae to be able to evaluate the setting at that level, I can say that it is very singable — certainly much more singable than the Kazan equivalent. Be aware that there is a small handful of typographical errors in the psaltic notation — I believe it will be shipping with an errata sheet in the future — but they are quite minor and if you follow the line where you think it’s going rather than what the notation says in these cases, you’ll wind up in the right spot.

One person made the comment to me that they found it odd that Lash’s translation doesn’t include the Nativity greeting in its customary English form, “Christ is born, glorify him!” and that as a result, strictly from a textual standpoint, they found Dr. Suchy-Pilalis’ setting unusable, even if it may be a more accurate rendering of the Greek. “Christ is born, give glory” is how Lash translates Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε, and yes, it’s closer to the Greek. Lash’s translations are excellent renderings into modern English, but he does tend to disregard established ways of saying things in English when he thinks they’re wrong. As has been discussed here before, he makes an excellent argument for why the Trisagion is better translated as “Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”, but it still apparently sounds wrong to a lot of people. He also translates Χριστὸς ἀνέστη as “Christ HAS risen,” which better conveys the past tense of ἀνέστη (more literally, “Christ rose” or “Christ stood up”). “Christ is risen” is an archaic form of the perfect tense in English (think “Joy to the world! The Lord is come” or “Spring is sprung, the grass is ris”), but we don’t use it that way anymore, so there’s some shift of meaning. For me, the more “traditional” English translations can be quite awkward from time to time (Nasser’s Mode III Resurrectional Theotokion, for example — “Thee, who art the Mediatrix for the salvation of our race, we praise, O Virgin Theotokos” etc.), and I tend to find that Lash knows what he’s talking about, so I’m happy enough to use his translations when I have the chance.

Anyway, I got this in time to sing it at our Nativity Matins — the katabasiae, anyway, since we don’t do full canons at All Saints — and it worked well, even if the second canon was in pseudo-Jacobean (or “hieratic”, as my godson Lucas puts it) English. The pronouns didn’t match, but nobody died. Nobody has ever complained about pronouns not matching (at All Saints, we don’t have a uniform English approach in our Sunday morning Divine Liturgy to begin with, let alone the rest of our liturgical practice) but if anybody ever does complain, I want to find a nice way of saying, “This is the current state of Orthodox liturgical translation in English. If you don’t like it, please send a note with your suggested solutions to the bishop along with a check that says ‘Translation Fund’ in the memo. No? Then you can live with the pronouns not matching.”

There are a couple of little things I might criticize — I’ve had English rules of choral diction hammered into my head enough over the years that I really don’t like it when people set diphthongs as two syllables. It might make sense from a standpoint of compositional principles, but to sing it that way sounds terribly strange to my ears. I also wish she had included slow katabasiae. Still, these are quibbles that don’t take away from the excellent work Dr. Suchy-Pilalis has done. It’s too late for this year, but do keep it in mind for next year. It’s the kind of effort that needs to be encouraged and rewarded, and most importantly, actually sung in parishes.

In which the author keeps the Mass in Christmas and shares other various thoughts

Christ is born, glorify him!

I got a phone call from my priest a week after Thanksgiving with a proposed Nativity schedule of Royal Hours with Divine Liturgy Friday morning, with Matins and Divine Liturgy Saturday evening. I gently suggested in return that it would be good to verify that the Divine Liturgy he was suggesting for Friday morning wasn’t the one we weren’t supposed to have Friday morning, since Nativity fell on a Sunday this year. More importantly, however, I asked him, why would we not want to have our festal liturgy the morning of, the one time in six years when our usual reasons for not doing so aren’t applicable?

This reasoning apparently made sense, because when the December calendar for the parish was published, the Nativity weekend included Royal Hours Friday morning, Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, Vespers Saturday evening, and Matins and Liturgy Sunday morning.

Then, the Friday before last, I asked him, hey, if I can guarantee the presence of bread and wine, would you be up for doing Litya/Artoklasia the next couple of Saturdays, given that they are festal observances where it would be appropriate? Yes, he said, and so I baked the five loaves both Saturdays and donated a bottle of Greek ecclesiastical wine I still had in the house.

For the Vespers and the Liturgy for Nativity, I even did something I don’t normally do for purposes of voice saving, the Old Testament and Epistle readings. My cardinal rule with those is — thank you, John Boyer — “If you think you’re going too slow, slow down,” and it’s really tempting in a space with no resonance whatsoever to speed up, but I didn’t. Saturday evening, even with only three of the Old Testament readings, my — shall we say — unhurried ekphonesis plus Litya and Artoklasia and all of the extra stuff for Nativity meant that Vespers clocked in at an hour and forty-five minutes, easily the longest Vespers service that has ever been served at All Saints. It was probably about nine hours of singing all told, from Friday through Sunday morning. Next year, with Christmas falling on a Monday, I may suggest that we just do a real All-Night Vigil (Small Compline, Great Vespers, Matins, Divine Liturgy), but I suspect that will go over like a lead balloon.

Anyway, as soon as we got home after church on Sunday we had to start in on the goose. Cooking plus company meant that it was about 10:45pm before we actually got around to any gift unwrapping.

I’ll note that I find the whole discussion about whether or not churches should close on Christmas when it falls on Sunday a little odd. To the extent that Christmas (or Easter, for that matter) are components of a liturgical year that has been largely abandoned, why should Christmas be given any special treatment one way or the other? 25 December is less “Jesus’ birthday” than it is the first day of the twelve day liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, which really is something a bit different, coming as it does after a penitential fasting season and coming right before Epiphany/Theophany. I suppose Christmas really does primarily function as a family holiday without that context, so it may as well be one. Jesus may certainly be the reason for the season, but the expression of that season is based in an ecclesiastical setting, and if you don’t have that setting (and/or if your first criterion is whether or not service times are “kid friendly”, which I’ve heard as a reason for why Midnight Mass in Catholic circles is downplayed these days), what’s all the fuss about whether or not the churches are open? Can you keep the Christ in Christmas without also keeping the Mass in it, at least and have it mean the same thing? If we’re taking the liturgical celebration of the Incarnation of Christ with all of its beautiful and glorious imagery and theology and reversals of human wisdom and so on and having to recast it as Jesus’ birthday party in order for it to make any sense in our current world, then is it really Christmas, or is it basically a cultural winter holiday with distant Christian roots where it would be nice if we emphasized them more?

On the “kid-friendly” point — my recollection is that I didn’t sleep much Christmas Eve as a little kid because of the anticipation of Christmas morning. So if your kid is going to be up all night with a lot of nervous energy to begin with, it seems to me an All-Night Vigil starting at 10pm Christmas Eve and going until 5am is perfect. You’ll all be getting home right about the time the kid was going to be up anyway, so what’s the problem?

A commenter recently weighed in on one of my postings on church architecture that Christ chose to be born in a lowly cave, so I’ll use that as the pivot from Christmas to my next set of thoughts.

St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Riverside, CA has gotten a fair amount of attention lately over their new church building. It is worth pointing out, however, that not all of the attention has been positive. There’s a good amount here worth thinking about, and I’ve been part of the discussion about building at my own parish for the last six years, so here goes.

A good twelve years or so ago, when I was attending St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Factoria, one of Bellevue’s commercial districts, they were embarking on a capital campaign to tear down the old nave and build a new one. The priest talked about the vision, what it would cost, and what the timeline was.

A woman raised her hand. “I have a question,” she said. “What if we waited? There are so many needs, in terms of supporting missions and giving to the poor. Why can’t we say, ‘We’re going to do that first,’ and put off building until we’ve done more in those areas?”

The priest was clearly expecting the question. “Well,” he said, “a couple of years ago we went through the exercise of asking, where do we think God is calling us to be as a parish in ten years? We looked at the ministries we support, how we’re going to continue supporting them, how we expect them to grow, and the other ministries we want to be able to support, and it was clear to us that in order to do these things, our current facilities were inadequate. So, that’s why the plan is to build.” The woman who asked the question clearly wasn’t buying the answer, but at least there was an answer.

Now, in my time in Episcopal circles, one thing you could never fault them on was process. Results — well, there they could be a little shakier. St. Margaret’s built a new church, most certainly — but they fell noticeably short of the ten year goal, from everything I’ve seen since I moved away in 2003. They lost people while they were building, the priest who married us left under some very unpleasant circumstances which caused more people to leave, and the series of interim leaders who followed meant that more people left because of uncertainty about where the parish was going. Bottom line is, the priest gave a good answer to a good question, that there was a plan and they were following it, and this plan will allow a both/and approach, but it still turned out to be the wrong thing to do, and right now the parish is drowning in debt (at least, that’s the picture I get from the website devoted to their debt reduction initiative).

I’ve written about this before, but one thing I experienced in Greece was that the poor congregate around churches. They hang out by the entrance of the narthex, some will sit quietly with hands up, some will hustle you, some will have something to try to sell, but the simple fact of the matter is that you can’t go into an urban church without having to interact with those whom Christ told you to feed and clothe on your way in. This is a good thing; their presence convicts you and hopefully prompts you to do something about it. We’re isolated from that experience in suburban churches, and to our own detriment.

At All Saints, we’re not a suburban church, we’re more of an exurban church. We’re in the middle of nowhere — no nice way to put it. There’s no way to get there if you don’t have a car — we’re in unincorporated county, so the closest bus stop is two and a half miles away, and trying to ride a bicycle or walk on these roads would be insane. We’re at the intersection of rural roads that are such that, even if I lived across the street, I’d still drive. We had a visiting priest tell us once, “Your remote location is a gift — it means you aren’t bothered by the concerns of being in a city like drug dealers and gangs and things like that.” This was some time after my return from Greece, and the first thing that went through my head was that this priest had sorely missed the point. The Church and the church building are not supposed to isolate us from the people we’re serving; they are supposed to help us serve them better. Right?

In Orthodox Christianity, as I understand it, the building is supposed to serve a number of functions — iconographic, practical, liturgical, and so on. Unfortunately, it seems like the conversations we have to have about building are required to assume that those functions have little to no bearing on what you’re actually going to be able to build, because we’re not actually building Orthodox churches in an Orthodox context — we’re building Orthodox shells in a Protestant context. What do I mean by that? Well, St. Irene Church in Athens does not have a fellowship hall, it does not have a set of Sunday school classrooms, it does not have a gym. It has offices for the priest; beyond that, it’s a church. By contrast, in the setting we have in this country, we’re supposed to have all of these other auxiliary services, and the fact is that they’re often the tail that wags the dog. At All Saints, we built a shoebox that looks like an office building first. It was envisioned as being the classroom wing of a three-wing facility that included a church; we built that first because the conventional wisdom was — so I’m told — “People come to church for church, but they stay for everything else a church does. This building allows us to do some of those other things while getting by as a church.” I had a conversation a week ago or so about another Orthodox building project where they’re building the hall first — the priest has evidently said that there’s simply no advantage in starting out by building the church, precisely because it’s the part everybody wants. Without that carrot to dangle, there will be no incentive to finish the project. So, we’re marginalizing our primary liturgical function because it’s just not practical when everybody is conditioned by the Protestant landscape to expect a buffet of secondary functions.

But, nonetheless, we’ve got a theology of how the church building functions iconographically and liturgically beyond merely the practical concern of needing a room in which to gather. Theoretically, we’re supposed to give the best of what we have to support those functions. We don’t do that to the exclusion of our duty to feed and clothe the poor — that is, to show mercy on our brothers and sisters — rather, it is part and parcel of it. Part of the function of the church building, as I am given to understand it (and as Lotar alludes to), is to be the property of the poor — something they have that is beautiful and divine in the midst of a life of hardship. (Which is why I’m a little less than impressed when I hear about churches that build facilities that they then go out of their way, with things like cardkey lock systems and whatnot, to make sure poor people can’t ever enter.)

Okay, so, fine, that’s the theological theory. All Saints has a complex relationship with those in need. First of all, we’re mostly a lower-middle to lower-class parish, so many of the needy whom the parish serves are its own parishioners. Second, we’re the first church listed in the Yellow Pages, so we tend to be the first called when people are calling churches looking for assistance of some kind. Our priest does what he can; our previous priest had a secular retirement plus the stipend the parish gave him, so he was in something of a position to give out of his own pocket to such people, but such are not the current priest’s circumstances. He tries to have a stock of prepaid debit cards and food on hand to be able to do something when people call; we used to have a relationship with a local homeless mission, and I’m not certain why we don’t anymore. A few years ago there was a discussion about trying to form some kind of an ecumenical effort in Bloomington to do more for the homeless, but the response the priest got from other pastors was, “Sorry, that’s just not going to work in this town.” Something the priest has started doing with catechumens is instructing them to have a bag of food in their cars that they can give to people who approach them on the street, and I think that’s a great step to be taking. Could we do more? Doubtless — who couldn’t? — but the structures aren’t really in place, and All Saints is not in a position to bear the administrative weight. We could hold a soup kitchen at All Saints, but who would come, and how would they get there? You need to do such things in the places where the people are, and that’s something we can’t do under current conditions.

The relationship with building is even more complex. Anything we build will take a capital campaign, and those are scary words for a lot of our people. The hard reality is that even more than St. Margaret’s in 1999, we have very little we’re able to do in our current facility. It doesn’t serve our needs liturgically, iconographically, or practically, beyond simply being four walls and a roof that’s sort of able to house services. At the very least, we can’t really grow without building, but there are parishioners who are adamant that we must grow before we can build. In a smallish community like ours, the big killer of any effort is apathy rather than opposition — opposition is at least engaging in the conversation. Apathy is not even acknowledging that there’s a conversation. Despite efforts over the years to get a conversation going about moving towards the permanent church building, there’s really no popular impetus to do anything. Some people have suggested that it might be better to talk about how we can expand the current space, but it just wasn’t designed in a way that would make that possible and cost-effective. 11 years ago, when they built it, they figured that it would allow them to grow to a point where they would be able to build the rest of it within five years, but neither the location nor the facilities are conducive to growth, and the realities of a college town with no real economic diversity to speak of have left the All Saints demographic in a position where many of them have had to leave Bloomington rather than stay and help grow the community they were part of establishing. Somebody told me a few days ago that the parcel of land in the middle of nowhere was partially justified as being someplace where maybe an archdiocesan retreat center could eventually be built, thus being a source of some income for the parish, but… well, it all takes money, money that people have not been thrilled about parting with for the last 11 years. So, six years ago, our priest said, “Now’s the time, we’re going to do it,” and six years later, we haven’t pounded a single nail. Will we ever? Hard to say. All Saints is an experiment, some say, in seeing if you can successfully plant an Orthodox church someplace in America where there have never been the usual reasons to have one. This is something of a strange way to put it to me; it’s clear that there has been a large community of Greeks in Bloomington since the early 20th century, they just apparently never felt terribly compelled to build a church. In any event, it seems to remain an open question as to whether or not the experiment was truly successful.

So, back to St. Andrew’s. It sounds to me like Lotar is probably a lot like the woman who asked the St. Margaret’s people, back in 1999, do we really have to do this now? Is building our dream church in the suburbs really so pressing a need that we’ve got to spend millions of dollars on it that could be spent on the things Christ actually told us to do? I’m torn, because I understand his point, but I also understand the point of building. Now, that said, he makes some swipes that strike me — as someone admittedly unfamiliar with the situation, particularly in contrast to Lotar — as uncalled for; it’s simply not true that “the whole of world Orthodoxy” does Italianate-style iconography while it’s only crazy American converts that want “Byzantine anachronisms”. What is true is that there are different styles that have been employed over the centuries, it’s somewhat cyclical, and right now there is a revival of the “Byzantine style” going on, not only among American “pseudo-pious” crazies, but certainly in Greece and in Russia as well. In Athens, yes, any church that was built in the nineteenth century is going to have western-looking icons, but anything painted in the last few decades isn’t going to look like that. If his story about the Georgian family is accurate, then that hardly makes it excusable, but I’m left wondering if there might not be more to the story because of how he has otherwise oversimplified some things.

My gut instinct is that there’s no way the Riverside project would have ever been justifiable in Lotar’s eyes; perhaps I’m wrong on that point, but I’m pretty sure that the answer the priest gave the woman at St. Margaret’s in 1999 didn’t turn her into a believer in the project, and from what I’ve encountered in various instances of these kinds of conversations, there are some disagreements that can only end in an angry standoff, with one side or the other bitterly claiming to having not been heard.

That said, reading the piece Lotar links to, I wish the priest had given an answer that was more like the one the Episcopal priest gave twelve years ago — that there’s a plan that is getting us to where we think we need to be in order to do the things we’re supposed to do as a parish, and this building is part of that plan. It’s not that what he says is wrong, exactly — and I can’t speak one way or the other to Lotar’s rebuttal on St. Andrew’s involvement with ministries for the poor — but it does seem easily read as unnecessarily self-justifying. It doesn’t seem to me to have been intended that way, but publicly dismissing those with questions as “small-souled” comes across as awkwardly off-message to say the least. There is a way to answer the concerns that people have in the context of a building project, but marginalizing them isn’t the way to do it. As I say, I get the impression that Lotar’s contempt for the project was probably a given from the get-go (and was probably a function of contempt for the community itself, or at least some segment of it), so maybe there’s no way that the outcome would have been different.

And maybe the thing that is unavoidable is that building projects are divisive. You’re not going to make everybody happy, you’re not going to be able to convince everybody that it needs to be done, you’re even not going to be able to convince everything that it isn’t a huge mistake. Yes, sometimes the naysayers are right; maybe they’re even right more often than we’d like to admit. I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t know if the Riverside church is a huge waste of money by a bunch of anachronistic and silly white people who are willfully skirting their obligations to the poor by building themselves a pretty toybox. I don’t know if All Saints needs to just get used to the idea that Orthodox Christianity in south central Indiana is a solution looking for a problem.

I believe the concerns of somebody like Lotar need to be heard and taken seriously. I also believe that Fr. Josiah is right in that the answer to those concerns is “both/and” — but the question is, how do you articulate the “both/and” such that the the person who believes they need to ask, “What if we waited?” actually believes that they’ve been heard and taken seriously, and so that the “both/and” actually gets realized? That’s a lot harder.

I feel compelled, for reasons I’m not entirely sure I can explain, to close with this passage from the ninth ode of the first canon for the Nativity:

A strange and wonderful mystery I see, the Cave is heaven, the Virgin the Cherubic throne, the Manger the Place in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid. Him we praise and magnify.

Christ is born, glorify him! Merry Christmas!

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.)

Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε!

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Christmas Eve found me singing the services of the Royal Hours of the Nativity, as well as the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil, in the morning. We only started doing the Liturgy in the last couple of years, and last year I had to leave right after the Hours, so this marks the first time I’ve sung this particular service.

The idea of the Royal Hours of the Nativity is one of my favorite services; it is, so far as I can tell, a Christmas service that is entirely ours and for which no other communion has an equivalent. I’ve always thought of it as a service that, in theory, could be a wonderful outreach if done really beautifully (of course, the same could be said of all of our services). Also the parallel of the hymn from Ninth Hour, “Today is born of the Virgin Him who holdest all creation in the hollow of His hand,” to the Fifteenth Antiphon from the Matins of Holy Friday, “Today is suspended upon the tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters,” is also one of those liturgical moments that reveals how carefully our ecclesiastical year is constructed.

The execution of the Royal Hours tends to stress me out, however. The last couple of years in particular have always had little gotchas (or big gotchas, as sometimes is the case) — two years ago, for example, my priest forwarded me an e-mail from our bishop saying, “This is how we’re going to do the Royal Hours throughout the entire diocese this year; please make a note of it.” I dutifully prepared to do the service exactly that way, I made a verbal attempt to verify Fr. Peter and I were on the same page before the service, and I reached the end of the Royal Hours as outlined by the bishop only to have the priest continuing on with exactly the portion of the service I had not brought with me for the morning. He asked me afterwards what happened; I told him I was following the bishop’s e-mail that he had forwarded me. Without going into messy details, we’ll just say that the decision had been made to not change anything in consideration of it being Fr. Peter’s first year at the parish, and that this not being conveyed to me was, one way or the other, an oversight. Last year, the Vesperal Liturgy was added to the schedule immediately following the Hours; unfortunately, for whatever reason the Liturgy was scheduled for an hour following the Hours, and the Hours take somewhere close to two hours if sung as written. We sped through as much as we possibly could, cutting repeats, and it was still about an hour and forty-five minutes. This incident was unfortunately forgotten, and the same mistake was made on this year’s calendar. The solution this time was to sing the troparion and kontakion at each hour, then read rather than sing the stichera leading up to the prokeimenon. This got us down to an hour and a half. Then there’s the matter of our Kazan Menaion for December being in horrible disarray with a lot of things having been lost or removed over the years. I will replace that, with my own money if need be, shortly (assuming they still exist). Hopefully, one way or the other, all of these issues can be addressed for next year.

Following the services for the morning, there was much goose-preparing, present-wrapping, cleaning and decorating to do before we returned to church for a chrismation, Nativity Matins, and Divine Liturgy at 8:30pm.

Goose, as it turns out, is on the expensive side. Being married to me has evidently done horrible things to Megan’s math, and/or her approach to thinking about food, and when she was asked how many people she was feeding when she ordered the goose, she added one plus one (her and me), and came up with the number seven. The resulting ten pound goose was, as you can see, not cheap. Ah well — if it had turned out terribly, it would have been a tragedy. As it is, we’re just fine with a few days’ worth of leftovers.

I mentioned earlier the matter of brining the goose. This involved cleaning the bird and soaking it overnight in five gallons of water with lots of salt, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, cardamom, and so on. The exact recipe may be found here. It was not terribly difficult, but all the ready-making was time-consuming, and I found myself wrapping Megan’s presents just minutes before we had to head back to church.

Matins and Liturgy were a good deal less stressful than the morning’s services, and set the Feast off well, I thought. Christmas is always a strange-feeling time at All Saints; college town that Bloomington is, a lot of people are gone, and even some people who are in town often stay home. To some extent, this underscores for me how Easter really is the main holy day on our calendar, and as much as the Nativity is a major feast, it just still isn’t as big of deal. Nonetheless, the Nativity Liturgy is the best-attended non-Sunday major feast at All Saints, even if it doesn’t pack the house the way Pascha does. We did have the nine-member family of a catechumen — which included a Pentecostal preacher. I was asked, seconds before we were about to start Matins, if there was anything with which he could follow along — having to think quickly, I handed the requestor an extra copy of both the Nassar book of liturgical texts (aka “the Five Pounder”) and the Antiochian service book. I still have no idea if that wound up being useful.

Another part of why it’s strange, though, is that there is nothing in the Byzantine celebration of the Nativity that corresponds to what is done at the popular level in American society. We sing totally different hymns, we don’t do a “living Christmas tree,” and incense, candles and whatnot are normative parts of every service for us, not just for high holy days. All Saints has sung Christmas carols in the church following the dismissal, but in the last 2-3 years that’s fallen out of practice because we’ve started reading the post-Communion prayers at that point, so there’s not really a logistically clean point anymore where that might work. For my own part, I can say that the last thing in the world I want to do after singing Nativity Matins and Divine Liturgy is to start singing Christmas carols, for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which being that I’m vocally exhausted, and also that aesthetically it seems like it would be the most jarring transition possible. Still, I know it’s difficult for some people, that to some extent it doesn’t feel like the same Christmas everybody else is celebrating. I’m not sure what the solution is, if there even really is one.

A nightcap of eggnog with bourbon found me before we hit the sack, and then that was that for the night.

I think we finally rolled out of bed around 10:30am on Christmas morning. We opened presents — some festal icons for us, a couple of reference works Megan wanted, and then for me home coffee roasting supplies — and then what I was really waiting for: eggs benedict from scratch, with biscuits made from the buttermilk that Megan’s butter-making efforts from a couple of days before had yielded.

Then it was time to start roasting a goose.

Roasting a goose is less tricky than some might have you believe, but the incontrovertible truth is that there is a lot of fat. You have to prick a lot of holes in the skin so that the fat can drain out while the bird is cooking, and then you have to be immensely careful when pulling it in and out of the oven lest all of the drippings splash over the side of the roasting pan. The plus of this is that goose fat is supposed to make fantastic mashed potatoes.

We followed this recipe and liked it a lot; the one caveat I might mention is that the way the steps are organized, it is not made clear that the stock is a vital ingredient of the gravy until it is too late to go back and rectify the matter if you skipped over it. We were able to improvise so that all was not lost, and the stock made a really tasty soup a couple of days later, but do be aware of this. Also, the recipe assumes a thirteen pound bird; ours was a ten-pounder, and by the time we got to the last 50 minutes of roasting as called for in the recipe, our meat thermometer told us that it was already done. Next time we will attempt to recalibrate the cooking times to match up with the goose’s size.

Anyway, one way or the other, the fowl was not foul in the least. My impression of how goose tastes is that it’s similar to roast beef as well as good dark meat on a turkey. We also had mashed potatoes, collard greens, and spinach, served with a very nice Lebanese red wine. Dessert was homemade pound cake.

I also decided I was in the mood to read the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud and in character; my reading of this story when I was seven or eight, after all, is the whole reason I ever had any idea there was such a thing as a Christmas goose in the first place, so it seemed appropriate. It was fun; we’ll see if this particular practice lasts.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday have, of course, seen us feeding a lot of people with goose leftovers. You can do all the same things with it as turkey; sandwiches, soup, and so on. As well as that’s gone over, maybe it was a good thing that Megan’s math was faulty — I look forward to doing it again.

All Saints served the Divine Liturgy of St. James again yesterday, the Sunday after Nativity being the other day when it is customary (at least in some places) to celebrate it; I hope to be able to post pictures soon. It really is a beautiful Liturgy, I’m finding it very enriching to become more familiar with it, and far more people in the parish got to be part of it than did in October. I’m only sad that it’s going to be almost ten months before the next time we do it.

And a new year is almost upon us. Thank God for that, for so many reasons.

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.)

Christ is born! Glorify him!

nativity.jpgAnd it came to pass that Mary was enrolled with Joseph the old man in Bethlehem, since she was of the seed of David, and was great with the Lamb without seed. And when the time for delivery drew near, and they had no place in the village, the cave did appear to the Queen as a delightful palace. Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.(Troparion from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, Byzantine rite)

A child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder; and his name will be called, the Angel of great counsel.

(Introit of the third Mass of Christmas Day, Roman rite)

Expect the media to bring up the usual historical “problems” with the Nativity account, according to Fr. Stephen Freeman, and don’t fret about it:

Literalism is a false means of interpretation (hermenuetic) and is a vain attempt to democratize the Holy writings. If they can be read on a literal level, then everyone has equal access to them and everybody has equal authority to interpret them. […] the seasons come and go and the media cannot resist speaking of what they do not know. And so they ask those who do not know to speak on their behalf. But if we would know Christ and the wonder of His incarnation, then we would do well to listen to those who have been appointed to speak and to hear them in the context given to us for listening – the liturgical life of the Church.

photo-6.jpgIn other news, blogging has been light the last couple of days because we’ve been madly scanning and shelving books. The Delicious Library and LibraryThing system has been fantastic, but most definitely less than perfect. One annoying thing is that even if Library of Congress data exists for a book, LibraryThing won’t always find it, requiring you to find it yourself on the Library of Congress website and enter it manually. For books that don’t have LC numbers, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do; is there a way that one can divine what the number will eventually be?

What’s also frustrating is that LibraryThing is in theory able to identify new ISBNs when a list is uploaded and add only those, and it does this successfully in most cases, but there are somewhere around ten books that are always duplicated when I add a new list. This afternoon I eliminated somewhere around fifty dupes, in some cases there being seven entries for one book.

Another issue: I’ve entered 718 books into Delicious (representing probably roughly half of what we have), and I’ve exported the catalog to LibraryThing on a fairly regular basis. This afternoon, LibraryThing showed 756 books; after eliminating the duplicates, I’m down to 702 in LibraryThing with 8 ISBNs it can’t find (European books, I think). That means there are eight books Delicious is listing in its catalog that for some reason LibraryThing isn’t picking up.

Nonetheless, we’ve been able to accomplish in a weekend what would have surely taken us a month on our own, and that’s most certainly worth it.

Finally–any other Leopard users out there finding that with the latest update, searching for files within the File Upload dialog appears to be broken?

Merry Christmas to all!


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