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Posts Tagged 'peter michaelides'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be right back.

Follow up on Angelic Light

I mentioned in my review of Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals that the copy I had provided no information other than track names, and I was left to guess names of composers based on my own familiarity with the recordings. Mark Powell, Cappella Romana’s executive director, was kind enough to pass along the complete track listing:

1. As many of you as have been baptised (I) 3:07
Composer: Frank Desby (died 1992)
CD: When Augustus Reigned
Taken from Dr. Desby’s 1951 “Divine Liturgy”…is an arrangement of Sakellarides’ simplified version of the traditional chant. (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

2. O Great and most sacred Pascha 1:38
Composer: Hieronymos Tragodistes of Cyprus (fl. 1550–60)
CD: Music of Byzantium

3. Cherubic Hymn, Mode Plagal IV 3:56
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927)
CD: Tikey Zes Choral Works
A setting for mixed chorus of one of Sakellarides’ simplified melodies for the Byzantine Eucharist’s ordinary offertory chant. (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

4. Communion Verse for Sundays 3:59
Composer: Peter Michaelides (born 1930)
CD: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom

5. Cherubic Hymn (Opening section) 3:49
Composer: Peter Michaelides (born 1930)
CD: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom

6. Offertory and Communion Hymn for Holy Thursday, Mode Plagal IV 2:58
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927)
CD: Tikey Zes Choral Works
English setting of a melody by Sakellarides (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

7. Communion Verse for Sundays, Mode Plagal I
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927) 4:24
CD: Tikey Zes Choral Works
An intricate arrangement of a chant by Sakellarides (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

8. Now the Powers of heaven 3:43
Composer: Father Sergei Glagolev (born 1927)
CD: Lay Aside All Earthly Cares – Orthodox Choral Works in English

9. Cherubic Hymn – Special Melody, The thief beheld 4:25
Composer: Father Sergei Glagolev (born 1927)
CD: Lay Aside All Earthly Cares – Orthodox Choral Works in English

10. Let all mortal flesh 3:20
Composer: Father Sergei Glagolev (born 1927)
CD: Lay Aside All Earthly Cares – Orthodox Choral Works in English

11. Megalynarion for Nativity (from Three Christmas Hymns) 1:47
Composer: Peter Michaelides (born 1930)
CD: When Augustus Reigned
“Megalynarion” is a Marian hymn from the Ninth Ode of the Christmas Kanon by St. Kosmas the Melodist

12. Ikos Six 2:18 (new piece–replaces “Kontakion for Mother of God”, since KMG duplicates “Hierarchichal Entrance”)
Composer: Ivan Moody (born 1964)
CD: The Akathistos Hymn
COPYRIGHTS: The Akathistos Hymn, O Tebe raduetsya
c Vanderbeek and Imrie Ltd,1999,1990

13. Hierarchical Entrance Rite for a Byzantine Divine Liturgy: V. Kontakion of the Mother of God, Mode Plagal 4 4:06
Composer: Anonymous (c. 1450)
CD: The Fall of Constantinople
Musical edition from medieval Byzantine sources c. Alexander Lingas

14. O Tebe raduetsya 4:02
Composer: Ivan Moody (born 1964)
CD: The Akathistos Hymn
COPYRIGHTS: The Akathistos Hymn, O Tebe raduetsya
c Vanderbeek and Imrie Ltd,1999,1990

15. What Shall We Call You Full of Grace 2:04
Composer: Richard Toensing (born 1940)
CD: Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ, New Orthodox Christmas Carols

16. Cherubic Hymn, Mode Plagal IV 5:52
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927)
CD: When Augustus Reigned
A setting for mixed chorus of one of Sakellarides’ simplified melodies for the Byzantine Eucharist’s ordinary offertory chant. (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

The comment was also made that, pace my remarks, the subtitle “Music from Eastern Cathedrals” is accurate because much of this music was composed for GOA cathedrals (and one Antiochian cathedral) in this country. Yes, fine, I get that the idea is that they’re “Eastern Cathedrals” because of communion, not because of geography (and I wonder if the booklet makes that explicit — the copy I was sent came with an temporary insert  that consisted of a listing of track names and the cover rather than the booklet I was assured accompanies the final product). As I said, I know I’m taking the title too literally, and it’s a minor point — I just wonder if the average person who doesn’t know anything about this repertoire who just sees the title of the album will understand what’s actually intended. If I were picking the title, it would have been something like “Eastern Cathedrals in the New World” or something like that (and I’m sure somebody would have instantly shot it down as being too wordy). For my part, I can think of instances where somebody has bought a CD based on my recommendation, then come back to me and been upset because they didn’t realize the recording was in English. “I don’t want to understand it!” they tell me. “If I can actually understand the words, I feel wrong somehow if I’m listening to it while doing the dishes!” Anyway, it still seems to me to be a point worth bringing up; I could be wrong.

As a side note, recordings seem to have a curious impact on musical practice in the American Orthodox world; my own impression, at least from my informal survey of parishes in the Midwest over the last several years, is that the most influential recording to have been released for English-speakers is the St. Vladimir’s Divine Liturgy disc, in terms of repertoire chosen and how that repertoire is sung. And, I have to say, it is a middle-of-the-road disc at best in terms of recording quality, repertoire, and performance, even taking into account the fact that it’s live and an actual service. Maybe the problem is one of expectation; the SVS folks picked repertoire that seems attainable and sang it in a way that doesn’t represent the material so perfectly that the average listener assumes that their choir couldn’t do it. By contrast, I can think of times when I’ve played more polished recordings with better repertoire for people and gotten the response, “Well, that sounds great, but who’s ever going to actually be able to sing it?”

Review: Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals, aka Cappella Romana Greatest Hits Volume II (1453-2012)

I joke, but Volume I has in fact been out for a few years now. (And Music of Byzantium is a compilation that could be considered along the same lines, except that it has a lot of otherwise-unreleased stuff on it.)

A point I made in the talks I gave at St. Paul’s in Emmaus is that harmonizing Byzantine chant makes it something other than Byzantine chant. If you are exceptionally skilled, you can use melodic material to compose really gorgeous-sounding Western music that calls to mind Byzantine chant, but it won’t be Byzantine chant. If you are, well, not exceptionally skilled, and you just sit down and try to harmonize a Byzantine melody the way you’d harmonize anything in a first-year music theory class, you will come up with something that not only isn’t Byzantine chant, but it isn’t very good Western music, either.

The compilation Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals is partially a demonstration of the first part of this principle, but also partially a demonstration that you actually can just write gorgeous-sounding Western music for Orthodox texts and not worry about the Byzantine chant part of the equation. The disc principally represents contemporary composers; alas, the copy I have only has track names and does not credit specific individuals for the settings, but I recognized the music of Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Rev. Dr. Ivan Moody, Richard Toensing (another member of the St. John of Damascus Society Advisory Board), and Peter Michaelides; the press release also mentions Tikey Zes. There’s really only one chant selection here, the medieval version of the Proemium of the Akathistos Hymn (aka the “Kontakion” of the Akathist or the Kontakion of the Five Sundays of Great Lent), Τῇ ὑπερμάχῳ στρατηγῷ/”To you, champion leader”.

There’s an awful lot to like about this recording; it’s a great sampling of Cappella Romana‘s polyphonic efforts, as well as of contemporary Orthodox composers in the Western world. I’ve heard some really overblown polyphonic Orthodox music; much of what’s present here is quite lush while still being reasonably restrained. Standouts include track 1, a setting of the Greek text of the anti-Trisagion “As many as have been baptized” — I think perhaps by Zes — as well as Glagolev’s Cherubic Hymn (sounding considerably more cleaned-up  than it did on its original disc — I assume it was remastered?), Moody’s “O Tébe Ráduyetsia” from the The Akathistos Hymn release, and Toensing’s carol “What shall we call you, Mary?” (very nice to see his vastly-underappreciated “Orthodox Christmas carols” included among such other works). Fr. Ivan Moody’s work I particularly appreciate because I think it does a nice job of showing how incorporating Byzantine melodic material can be an intentional compositional choice in the context of a broader work — that said, it seems highly unlikely to me that his Akathistos will get much use in an actual liturgical setting, and more’s the pity; as a result it’s harder to make the case that it’s representative of what can be done with English-language liturgical music.

And, I suppose, that gets to the one real criticism I have of the disc, which is that the title is misleading. With the possible exception of the medieval Kontakion, this isn’t music from “Eastern Cathedrals”. Most of this is by composers who are living and working in the United States; I think Peter Michaelides was born in Greece and Fr. Ivan Moody is English (and lives in Portugal!), but Richard Toensing, Tikey Zes, and Fr. Sergei Glagolev were all born in the States. Besides that, I seriously doubt any “old country” parish, let alone cathedral, would ever use this music liturgically, and at least here in the Midwest, I know of precious few American parishes that would even give this music a second look. Whether or not they should or could is a different question — I would dearly love to be a member of any parish choir that could handle this music in a liturgical context — but ultimately this recording is more representative of what Cappella Romana’s musical objectives are and what it tries to champion than what one is actually likely to hear in an Orthodox church. It’s the double-edged sword of works like the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil — there was a community chorus that performed that piece here in Bloomington a few years ago; Fr. Peter and I gave a brief presentation to the group to talk about the liturgical context, and then Fr. Peter also talked to a group of audience members before the concert. Good opportunity for outreach, but then there were a couple of people who showed up at All Saints thinking that they were going to get to hear Rachmaninoff. Nope, sorry. Thank God that an ensemble like Cappella does what it does to try to get these ideals of sound into actual ears, but let’s make sure we’re not over-representing what’s going on.

Arguably, I’m taking the title too literally; I know that, and it frankly amounts to a seriously minor criticism, but it seems to me to be something worth discussing. The contents of the disc itself are excellent, and one hopes that hearing music like this sung at this level will inspire Orthodox church musicians and members of the congregation to wonder to themselves, “What if…?” rather than just shaking their heads and saying “If only…”

Review — Cappella Romana The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and Ensemble Organum: Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siecles

My copies of The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and the latest installment of Ensemble Organum’s Chant de l’Eglise de Rome arrived while I was traveling for Thanksgiving, and upon my return I was neck deep in finishing things up for the semester. Now that fall term of 2009/2010 is in the books, time to give these recordings its due attention.

My experience with a lot of the four-part Orthodox liturgical music that’s out there is that, frankly, it’s either terrible or plain mediocre. I have sometimes heard it said that Western ears are too used to harmony to like unison singing, so we have to add parts to chant melodies, and this attitude seems to be borne out in much of what we sing in our churches today. A lot of what I’ve encountered consists of Byzantine melodies harmonized very badly, as though somebody said suddenly, “Oh! I need a four-part arrangement of this hymn for tomorrow!”, proceeded to bang the melody out on some keyboard instruments, and wrote down whatever progression underneath it that was simplest and most tonal (and which also typically produced part-writing errors). A related problem is an overabundance, at least in some scenarios, of simplistic utility music. At the other end of the spectrum is really overblown, self-consciously polyphonic music — I can think of one example (which I decline to name) that seems to essentially ask the question, “What if Palestrina wrote a Divine Liturgy?” There are, of course, exceptions; Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music is very nice and singable, for example, and I’ve expressed my appreciation for Kurt Sander before.

I am very happy to add Peter Michaelides’ Divine Liturgy to the list of exceptions. Michaelides’ choral music is certainly prayerful, and while it is certainly not an exercise in compositional excess (like, say, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy), neither is it so restrained as to simply be an unnecessary sheen over the text. The character of the music is evocative enough of the Byzantine tradition that it is identifiably Orthodox music; some of the melodies of Sakellarides are used as a jumping-off point, but then the medium of the mixed choir is used to its advantage, always sounding like a completion of, rather than an addition to, the melody. That is to say, the music actually needs the harmonies — the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the music are complementary rather than one being tacked on. The Cherubic Hymn of the setting is perfect example of this balance; the different voices intertwine and interlock beautifully but never gratuitously.

The recording strikes a very nice aural balance of clarity of text and resonance of the room, and it is a credit to Cappella Romana that they have the flexibility to sing this kind of choral music and the Byzantine repertoire as beautifully as they consistently do. One thing I am very appreciative of is that the setting is presented practically, as a real Divine Liturgy, with the Very Rev. Archpriest George A. Gray III singing the priest’s parts (including the Gospel reading) and Alexander Lingas chanting the Epistle. This is music that should be presented in a liturgical, rather than a concert, setting. As an additional “realistic” detail, parts of the setting are alternated between Greek, English and Arabic — both a nice touch and a nod towards the pastoral reality in many parishes. It is exactly because of this attention to liturgical authenticity, however, that Lingas speaking the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by himself, rather than these parts being said by the entire choir, comes off as a bit jarring.

It has been said that, in terms of how Orthodox liturgical music might develop in this country, what the Byzantine repertoire has to offer is a richness of melody, and what the Western idiom has to offer is a richness of harmony. Along these lines, while acknowledging that the Sakellarides material does not necessarily represent the best of what the Byzantine tradition has to offer, Michaelides’ music nonetheless suggests what could be a way forward. Rather than haphazardly forcing modal melodies into a tonal box with sloppy part writing that’s little more than a sop to “that guy” in the congregation who instinctively sings parallel thirds to everything, with the result sounding neither like good chant or good four part music, it is possible for these melodies to serve as a springboard into something more carefully crafted and more, dare I say it, iconographic in quality.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Ensemble Organum’s recording? Hang on for a second and I’ll explain.

Over the last twenty years, Ensemble Organum has put out a series of recordings of Western liturgical music off of manuscripts that represent the so-called “Old Roman” repertoire. I’m probably the wrong guy, at least at this stage of the game, to try to go into all the issues surrounding this music; suffice it to say that the liner notes of these recordings present this is as the older, pre-Gregorian chant repertoire of the Roman church.

Now, these recordings are, essentially, reconstructions of what they think the chants sounded like; knowing what notes the signs represent are only half the battle, of course, there are also the questions of rhythm, tuning, ornamentation, and overall vocal approach. Working with Lycourgos Angelopoulos, Ensemble Organum has taken the approach of interpreting these manuscripts more like Byzantine chant than Gregorian chant, complete with isokratema (drone) and very Greek ornamentation. Are they right? I don’t know — it sure sounds convincing enough. On the other hand, I can imagine that there is no shortage of counterarguments. Maybe something like this: how convenient for Byzantine psaltai that the Old Roman repertoire, which may or may not date from before the sixth century, sounds exactly the same as their music (which of course isn’t really Byzantine at all, but Ottoman, per the “narrative of decline” which I’ve discussed earlier). I’m not a musicologist, so I can’t really argue one way or the other for Ensemble Organum’s performance practice, but I do think that seeing the diversity of liturgical practice within the context of a unified Roman Christian identity is a fascinating idea.

What I can say is that these recordings sound really beautiful. For that reason alone, whatever their musicological merit might be, I find them quite compelling.

The latest in the series is hymnody from Christmas; the Vigil Mass, the Midnight Mass, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass of the day itself. If you’re used to the Gregorian repertoire, something like “Puer natus est nobis,” the introit for the Mass of Christmas day, is going to be quite foreign to you. It’s over twice as long as presented by EO (almost six minutes, as opposed to the two and a half minutes the Gregorian version typically takes), it’s a much more elaborate melody, it’s in a different mode, and the earthy, rich Byzantine approach is very different from the austerity employed by the typical Gregorian schola.

I suppose the value of a recording like this is that it gets people thinking differently about the context in which the Gregorian repertoire emerged and what that might imply for how it should be approached. It also suggests a way we might aurally frame the united Christendom of the Roman world, and how could have been both alike and different from the modern received chant traditions inherited from that world.

In the case of both of these recordings — told you I’d get to this eventually — you have a suggested musical ethos that draws from both the Christian East and West. Michaelides uses Western harmonic vocabulary to elaborate Eastern melodies and does so in a way that creates something new; Ensemble Organum uses Eastern stylistic practice to interpret Western melodies in order to suggest something very old.

These recordings share a common problem, too — essentially, what is the impact either of these recordings could potentially have on modern parish practice? Is there a Catholic church out there that is going to be rushing out to incorporate the Old Roman repertoire in their Christmas festivities? Despite Cappella Romana’s presentation of the Michaelides setting as music for practical use in worship rather than as a concert piece, is it likely to find a place in a church culture that sees the Liturgy as a sing-along and defines “participation” as “everybody sings everything”? Are people going to hear the recording and say, “Wow, our choir should sing this!” or are they going to say, “Boy, that sounds like it would be too hard for the congregation to be able to sing along with.” One thing about bad part-writing that caters to parts people are improvising anyway — it makes congregational singing very easy, if that’s the goal.

At any rate, I would love for the answer for both recordings to be “yes”. I would love to think that this kind of music could find a place in the venue for which it was written, the church, and not be treated as concert pieces best appreciated at arm’s length. I would love for Catholic and Orthodox churches to be striving for musical excellence, and to be incorporating music like this as a way to pursue that excellence. Time will tell.

In any case, both recordings would make excellent stocking stuffers, and consider them recommended.

(hack) Thanksgiving leftovers (koff)

It’s the first day of December. How the heck did that happen?

On the way out to New Mexico last week, I sat between a married couple who were both sick and kept coughing across me. It was Southwest Airlines, so seating was first come first serve, and they made it clear they would rather have me in the crossfire than give up either an aisle or a window seat. It must have been clear how this came across, because as we were getting off the plane, the wife said to me, “Don’t worry, you won’t catch anything from us — we’ve had this for the last four weeks.”

My stepfather was sick when I got to New Mexico. Flesh of My Flesh was sick on Thanksgiving day. My mom was getting sick over the weekend as we were preparing to leave.

So, perhaps it was inevitable, but Sunday evening I started developing a sore throat on the flight home, yesterday it was getting worse, and today I’m staying home trying to keep from getting worse or giving it to lots of people. I hate to be “that guy” who suspiciously gets sick immediately following a break, but here we are.

As I drink my gallon of Throat Coat tea, there are a few things upon which to muse:

  • My review copy of Cappella Romana’s recording of the Michaelides Divine Liturgy arrived in my absence, as did the Ensemble Organum disc I mentioned earlier. A full review will come shortly; for the moment, I will say only that both are worth your time and represent, in an odd way, flip sides of the same coin.
  • If you do iTunes, Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ 1993 album of Byzantine hymnody for Christmas has been rereleased in that format. It has been out of print for years as an actual disc, although there seem to be some used copies on Amazon. (Note that the iTunes release has a slightly different title: The Glory of Byzantium: Christmas Hymns.)
  • Rod Dreher is leaving the Dallas Morning News to become director of publications for the John Templeton Foundation. Close to four years ago, I started hearing various grumpy old men murmuring about “crunchy cons”. My godson Lucas at some point started reading the book and recommended I read it. It resonated quite a bit with me as somebody who looks more to Russell Kirk than Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin as a model of what conservatism should look like, and the point of the book seemed to me to be to ask how conservatives might, y’know, actually conserve something other than money or power or status. I gave copies of it to a lot of people, and I’m reasonably sure I know everybody in Bloomington who has read it (I’ll let you decide if I’m joking). I’ll fess up that, while a lot of Dreher’s critics had no patience for how he discussed food, I really appreciated what he had to say about a sacramental approach to it, and even if Michael Pollan isn’t using the word “sacramental”, his work and Dreher’s demonstrate that it can be a topic where liberals and conservatives can make common cause (and of course, Dreher interviewed Pollan for The American Conservative last year). Since the book came out, it has seemed as though he was searching unsuccessfully for a way to follow up what should have served as a strong statement of purpose; what he touted as a “sensibility” never quite materialized as a movement, exactly, eventually Crunchy Cons went out of print, and the hinted-at sequel about “the Benedict Option” never materialized, presumably because (as he kept saying in his blog) his newspaper job had become an exercise in self-preservation. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last four years; Dreher converted to Orthodox Christianity, and right now conservatism seems to be floundering on the very cultural essentials the importance of which he was trying to stress, consequently lurching even more towards negativity and hostility. My hope is that a break from political commentary will allow Dreher to follow up on the issues discussed in Crunchy Cons from a more purely cultural perspective, because I think that’s where his heart has wanted to go with it anyway.
  • There was an interesting article in the New York Times this last Sunday about the traditional Latin Mass. Even more interesting has been the discussion of it in places like The New Liturgical Movement and Commonweal. I’m really not sure what a “liturgist” is — a liturgical scholar? a liturgical composer? a person who interprets rubrics? — but what I find striking is how for many modern Catholics, it seems like the rupture from tradition is in fact a selling point. I was in a large, old stone Catholic church once where they were doing a lot of work to restore the interior. The high altar was still in place, and I asked somebody if it ever got used; the person I asked looked highly offended that I would even dare to mention the high altar’s existence, and said, “No, Vatican II turned the altars around and returned the focus of the Mass to the people,” and made it clear that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes it seems like the majority of Westerners truly and actively yearn for their worship to be sentimental, banal, and tacky. At any rate, I don’t have a dog in this fight (except insofar as I strongly disagree with certain parties who think Orthodoxy needs its own Vatican II), but it seems to me that the traditionalist and modernist narratives are irreconcilable, as the comments on Wolfe’s article indicate. What I will say is that the invocation by a commenter at Commonweal of C. S. Lewis (“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual”) seems quite apt, and the apparent need, not just for the 1970 Missal to be embraced but for anything that ever came before it to be wiped from the face of the earth, is very telling — at least to me. At the risk of elevating aesthetics over all other concerns, I’ll point out that the Mass of St. Gregory inspired people like Josquin and Palestrina; the kinds of composers the Novus Ordo appears to have inspired are, shall we say, not even close.

Okay. I need more tea.

New release from Cappella Romana: The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides

I don’t have my review copy yet (it is on the way), but be aware that this is now available; I’m looking forward to giving it a listen.

(UPDATE, 25 Nov. 8:53am MST: The sound samples the “Post to WordPress” button on my toolbar picked up were for the Toensing Kontakion of the Nativity, not the Michaelides. I think I’ve fixed this. I also added a link to the Cappella Romana site so that people can, y’know, actually buy it. Dangers of blogging when still tired from travelling…)

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