Posts Tagged 'rassem el massih'

Byzantine chant at Holy Cross and CD Review — All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service

This has been a ridiculous semester on multiple fronts. I have been assisting with a course where there has been a constant cascade of homework to be graded pouring on top of my head, plus I’ve been trying to write a dissertation, plus I have a child I’m trying to rear, plus I’ve had extracurricular activities, plus I’ve got a 1:15 commute to church on Sunday I didn’t have a year ago, plus I have a spouse dealing with all of exactly the same things. Too much fun.

It is an exciting time for Byzantine chant in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese; the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music just performed an invited concert at Agia Irini Church in Constantinople, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology recently unveiled their Certificate in Byzantine Music, and they also released a new CD, All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service, recorded by their new full-time professor of Byzantine music Dr. Grammenos Karanos and his students.

As somebody who has been fortunate enough on a small handful of occasions to attend services in the Holy Cross chapel, I can happily tell you that All Creation Trembled is a pretty accurate snapshot of at least the aural experience of the chapel. The students chant in antiphonal choirs, often divided by language (while not represented on this disc, Thursday evenings have of late been dubbed “Antiochian night”, where the Antiochian seminarians get the right choir and chant in Arabic, while the left choir gets Greek.) They do so from classically composed scores in Byzantine notation, in both Greek and English, and they do so under the expert direction of Dr. Karanos, who functions as the protopsaltis (first cantor) of the chapel. At the same time, they have also in the last few years had a group of particularly strong students to help, especially John Michael Boyer, who has been the lampadarios (director of the left choir) of the chapel for the last couple of years, and Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born seminarian who studied Byzantine chant with Fr. Nicholas Malek at the Balamand before emigrating to the United States. Other standouts, at least when I’ve been there, have included Niko Tzetzis, Gabe Cremeens, Andreas Houpos, and Peter Kostakis (and others — forgive me if I’m blanking on a couple of names).

The disc’s repertoire is hymnody from Holy Week, specifically from the Matins for Holy Friday (sung on the evening of Holy Thursday), and it is about 50/50 Greek and English. The English scores, composed by Boyer, employ the translations of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), occasionally modified by Boyer for metrical purposes. The recording quality is very clean, and the singing is robust and clear throughout, with an ensemble sound never dominated by one voice. This in particular is a point I want to praise; the recording could have very easily become “The Karanos/Boyer/El Massih Liturgical Variety Hour”, and it never goes there; even Karanos himself is only heard a couple of times as a soloist. A sense of the chapel choir as, above all, a liturgical ensemble is always maintained, with everything they sing and how they sing it dictated by liturgical concerns. The result is well-balanced and it sounds wonderful. If it is not quite professional-level — some background noise creeps in, and sometimes it sounds like the microphones are not quite optimally placed — well, it’s still an excellent entry in the category of American recordings of Byzantine chant, and it still captures the moment very well, a moment that represents a revitalized program in its early days, one that is starting to have an impact elsewhere — El Massih is now teaching Byzantine chant at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for example, and that can only be for the good. If this can be taken as a statement of intent on Dr. Karanos’ part, then the future is encouraging.

The Certificate program also suggests an encouraging future; it’s intended to be the equivalent of a conservatory program in Greece, and it looks like it’s pretty comprehensive. I know one person who was going through a try-out version of it, and it sounds like it would be well worth the two years. One hopes that eventually there might be some financial assistance available for students who would want to go through such a program but aren’t there for M.Div. work. I would also very much like to see the program replicated elsewhere (I’ve discussed my own curriculum proposal elsewhere); if I have any particular critique of all of these efforts, it is that they are ultimately inaccessible for those of us not in the Northeast. I would have no problem with the Northeast functioning as a central location for a network of programs, but access to this training and to these kinds of opportunities needs to be geographically more spread out than it is. In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese alone, there’s no reason there couldn’t be a formal training program and Byzantine choir in every Metropolis (although color me skeptical about attempts to do this kind of thing online as a normative approach — I can’t imagine any of my voice lessons from the old days going well if done that way).

I leave you with the video of the Archdiocesan School’s concert at Agia Irini. Enjoy.

Review and a mini-interview: Dr. Sam Cohlmia, Byzantine Chants to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos

Blogging has been light the last couple of months for what I hope are obvious reasons. The new school year starts up the week after next, so we’re all going to have to start making the adjustment back to the normal swing of things soon, so hopefully I can catch up then on some posts I’d intended to write over the summer but didn’t. (Of course, there’s also the matter of qualifying exams needing to happen sometime in the next twelve months.)


In the meantime, Dr. Sam Cohlmia, protopsaltis of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and the Midwest as well as St. George Cathedral in Wichita, was kind enough to send me a review copy of his new recording, Byzantine Chants to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos. It contains many of the festal hymns for the Feast of the Dormition, with Dr. Cohlmia as solo cantor throughout (and providing his own isokratima via the miracle of modern recording technology).

The disc is fairly evenly split between English and Arabic, with Dr. Cohlmia using the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Menaion for most (not quite all) of the metered hymns (prosomoia), and Nassar (apparently modified in spots) for the non-metered hymns as well as the stichera at the Praises. In terms of musical sources, Dr. Cohlmia is using Arabic scores by composers such as Mitri El Murr and Andraos Mouaikel, and adapting those into English himself. The melodies for the Lamentations are a bit of a puzzlement to me — not necessarily on this disc, but in general — since what’s sung here represents the third set of permutations that I have been told are the “authentic” Antiochian melodies, so I’m not sure what that means.

There is a great deal to like on this disc; Dr. Cohlmia has a clear and lovely voice, and handles the vocal requirements of both languages nicely. Although Lebanese-born, his sung English diction is excellent, and all the texts sound smooth and natural throughout. He is able to bring a good sense of style to the presentation; while his approach as a solo cantor makes for a different realization of “Antiochian style” than one hears on, say, The Voice of the Lord (which represents the chant tradition of the Patriarchate of Antioch applied to an English-language choral context), the two recordings clearly share and are honoring the same heritage. That said, some of the differences in approach are evident in spots where the recordings are using the same melody — for example, in the Kathismata for both feasts, the nenano melody “Κατεπλάγη Ἰωσήφ” (“Joseph was amazed” in the HTM books) is employed, and the contrast between the choral and solo realizations is subtle, but interesting.

One thing that both recordings do that’s particularly nice for learning purposes is proper use of metered model hymns. This is a system that can be a bit opaque for cantors who are having to cut their teeth in the Antiochian Archdiocese; neither Kazan nor Nassar make note of their use, Nassar is unmetered anyway, and Kazan just writes them out and shoehorns the texts into them without telling the singer that that’s what’s happening. For metered translations one must turn to the Holy Transfiguration Monastery books, which seems to have something of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” status in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and which also aren’t complete outside of the Menaion. A metered Octoechos doesn’t appear to exist, neither does a metered Triodion, and the Pentecostarion has been being revised and “due any day now” for several years. Even if you have metered texts, however, sources for the melodies are tricky. HTM’s book of melodies is a bit idiosyncratic in terms of musical material, and while Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ is better in terms of being better-grounded in “classical” sources (like the Irmologion of John the Protopsaltis), it’s harder to use with the HTM books because the melody titles are different — sometimes marginally so, sometimes significantly so — and the translations are idiosyncratic. It’s better, frankly, to just learn Byzantine notation and learn the model melodies out of the Irmologion, but then there’s the problem of not getting the sung tradition in addition to the notated tradition. There’s this site, and the recordings are instructive, but not exactly stellar. All of this is to say, Dr. Cohlmia’s recording, as with the Theophany School disc, provides an English-language model for realizing a nice little handful of the model melodies realized with metered translations, and that makes it useful as well as enjoyable and prayerful to listen to. I’m not clear as to why he doesn’t use the metered translation for the stichera at the Praises, and the model melody is quite a bit different from the one that’s in the Greek books (“Ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, “As one valiant”), but the others employed are wonderfully practical learning tools.

Anyway, I’d love to get Dr. Cohlmia and Rassem El Massih in the same church at some point for a Liturgy, and perhaps I will. The CD can be purchased through the Wichita Chancery (details here).

I also present Dr. Cohlmia’s responses to some follow-up questions that he was good enough to take the time to answer. I find them very illuminating, and I appreciate the perspective he brings to the table. I will be curious to hear what others think.

1) How were you trained as a cantor?

I self-trained beginning in 1991 out of interest.  Being born in Beirut and going to church there and being exposed to excellent chanting, it was relatively easy for me to understand the melodies, since several of them are derived from the 11 basic Oriental melodies, such as Hijaz (Tone 6), Nahawand (Tone 5), Bayyat (Tone 1), and so on.  I was not formally trained to become a chanter, but simply practiced constantly.

2) For this recording, did you sing off of notated scores, or did you just have texts that you knew how to sing from memory? If notated scores, did you use staff notation or Byzantine notation?

I wrote the music for the entire Orthros service of the feast of the Dormition (in Western notations).  For some of those pieces of music, I simply transcribed the Byzantine notations from Mitri Murr’s arrangements in Arabic to Western notations in English.

3) How do you approach chanting in English differently from how you approach chanting in Arabic or Greek?

Chanting in English is rather tricky when compared to doing the same in Arabic or Greek.  In English, you have to be extremely careful with the pronunciation of the various syllables in addition to the lack of enough vowels makes chanting challenging.  In Arabic, especially, there are lots of vowels, and generally it is easy to chant words without placing particular emphasis on specific syllables (that’s simply a general statement, of course).

4) Do you have a sense of how Byzantine chant in the Patriarchate of Antioch is distinct from, say, under the Church of Greece or the Ecumenical Patriarchate? How do you see how you chant as being different from how a Greek cantor might approach it, if at all?

Overall, Arabic Byzantine chant in our patriarchate differs, in my opinion, than Greek Byzantine chant in the ecumenical patriarchate.  To me, Arabic chanting is certainly more melodic and, horizontal (if you will) than Greek chanting, which at times sounds choppy.  It simply flows better and sounds more soothing, although Greek chanting is very beautiful.  My chanting style is certainly more based on the Arabic, as I use Mitri Murr’s and Fr. Nicholas Malek’s arrangements as a guideline.  I do also have Protopsaltis Kharilaos Taliadoros’ anastasimatarion (in Greek), and it is beautiful, but not as melodic as the Arabic arragements.  The arrangements of Mitri Murr, and Fr. Malek (new arrangements), truly bring the words to life, as the music is written to mirror the words.  His work is very brilliant.

5) In week-to-week services at the Cathedral, what materials do you use? Are you using the chant books of Mitri El-Murr for Arabic, for example, or something else? What do you use for English? Kazan/Nassar? Or something else?

I put together the Typikon Notes from the Arabic and Greek Typikon each week for the Sunday services.  The text that I use is a combination of that from Nassar’s book as well as the HTM Menaion.  At times, if the text does not exist, and it is called for in the Typikon, I simply translate it into English.  So, we basically use the book of Nassar, HTM Menaion, HTM Pentecostarion, +Kallistos Ware’s Lenten Triodion, to name a few.  For chanting purposes, we use the Byzantine music project put out by the Archdiocese (for English) and Mitri Murr’s work (for Arabic).  Rarely would I use Taliadoros’ anastasimatarion (for Greek) unless there are Greek parishoners at Vespers or Orthros.

6) What’s your sense of how Kazan/Nassar have represented and transmitted Antiochian tradition for English-language Orthodox Christians? What could be better? What would you hate to see changed?

Kazan’s music, like any other individual’s music, is one representation of Byzantine chant.  It is certainly very simplistic, but good enough for the minimally trained or unfamiliar chanter.  Most “chanters” in the US are not true chanters, but singers instead, so that music works fine for them.  In my opinion, true chanters need to fully learn Byzantine music.  As far as Nassar’s book, it is alright for the most part, although there are a few mis-interpretations, where the English could be better.  The best work is HTM’s Menaion and Pentecostarion, since the interpretation in extremely accurate and the special melodies are perfectly metered.  As far as what I would hate to see changed, I would hate to see the Church lose its Antiochian tradition.  I would hate to see the music being watered down from the original humble Byzantine to the more dramatic and grandiose choral.  Don’t get me wrong.  The church needs the two, but there needs to be more emphasis on Byzantine chant, because it seems that it gets put on the back-burner at times.  Furthermore, chanters need to learn Byzantine chanting and music, in addition to preserving some of the Arabic used in the church (depending on the individual church).

7) What’s the future of Byzantine chant in our Archdiocese, as you see it?

Hopefully the same if not better.  I would like to see emphasis on Byzantine chanting at the various seminaries (not just Holy Cross), as well as Byzantine courses being offered for ALL chanters.  Any person who plans to approach the Psaltyrion to chant needs to have a good education on Byzantine chanting, which hopefully could be learned at some Byzantine school or course of some kind.

Byzantine chant in The Word

In the current issue of The Word one may find an article on Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born cantor in the Antiochian archdiocese and a current student at Holy Cross. I reviewed the CD the article mentions back when it first came out, and I also met Rassem on my trip out there back in February. While I didn’t get to chant with him, I found him to be a great person to talk to and I enjoyed getting to know him very much, however briefly. It’s great to see that his star might be on the rise. I should note, as per a discussion going on in the comments of a recent post, that Dr. Grammenos Karanos, a supposed exemplar of “Patriarchal style”, is quoted with very strongly positive words about Rassem, who is steeped in the “patriarchal style” of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

By the way: I’d link directly to the article instead of quoting it in full, but the online version of The Word is distributed only in pdf form. An article of mine that ran in The Word I’ve seen reproduced in full on church websites, so I assume I’m doing nothing untoward here, particularly since I’m not making any money off of it and the Archdiocese distributes The Word to its membership for free. In any event, copyright is acknowledged as belonging to the Archdiocese and authorship is acknowledged as being that of Linda M. Thomas.

Rassem El Massih: A Voice of the Faithful

by Linda M. Thomas

Thousands of miles from the tiny church where he first began to chant, the pure and powerful voice of Rassem El Massih rings out in prayer. The first cantor at St. George Orthodox Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, embraced Byzantine music from the time he was a small boy growing up in a town called Anfeh, on the coast of north Lebanon. Today his voice and spiritual presence are felt during Vespers service at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, as well as Sunday mornings in nearby West Roxbury.

On October 26, 2009, El Massih led the choir at UN prayer services presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW, Archbishop of Constantinople, at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity of the Greek Archdiocese.

Last December, El Massih and four other seminarians from Holy Cross were invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The concert honored St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero, the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, and in thanksgiving for the announcement of its rebuilding.

“Rassem’s voice is beautiful,” said His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan PHILIP, Primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, who said he was “edified” listening to the first-ever Byzantine music concert at Carnegie Hall.

“When he chants, it sounds like a nightingale. His voice is very soothing to the soul and to the heart. Sometimes he is as gentle and soft as an evening summer breeze,” the Metropolitan said of El Massih. “Sometimes he roars like a waterfall.”

Whether he’s chanting inside a celebrated arena like Carnegie Hall or a small, out-of-the-way monastery, however, the thirty-one-year-old divinity student says he feels the same: “My goal is to praise God regardless where I am.”

Drawn to Sacred Music

“I was a very shy and quiet boy who was drawn to church and, specifically, its sacred music,” El Massih said. “After school, I would eat, then try to finish my homework as fast as I could, so I could listen to Byzantine chant. I definitely also wanted to play with my friends, like any other boy my age, but church was as important to me as playing with my friends.”

He began chanting in churches and in school when he was nine. Seeking to perfect his voice, he enrolled at the School of Byzantine Music of the Archdiocese of Tripoli and El-Koura, while at the same time directing the choir of Our Lady of Al- Natour Monastery, a serene sanctuary on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea just outside Anfeh.

“Anything they taught me, I would say, ‘You  don’t have to repeat the melody for me twice.’ Boom. I got it,” he recalled. “Because I was so in love with it, I would do anything to memorize it. I spent hours and hours practicing.”

In 2002 El Massih came with his family to the United States and settled in Boston. At the time, his parents spoke no English, so El Massih got a job to help support them and his two younger sisters while still a full-time student. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies and a minor in human development from Hellenic College in 2010. Currently he is a graduate student at Holy Cross Seminary, and hopes to receive a degree of Master of Divinity in May 2013.

In his 33 years as a priest, said Very Rev. Father Timothy Ferguson, pastor of the West Roxbury parish where El Massih and his family are parishioners, he has not heard Byzantine tonation (or music) of the quality he now hears on a regular basis. “Rassem’s voice is a natural gift of that music – a God-given talent,” he said. “He teaches others and he’s gracious about sharing his talent.”

“He is one of the best cantors in the country,” said El Massih’s teacher, Grammenos Karanos, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. “He is also one of few people who can perform chant in three languages [Greek, Arabic and English], and may very well be the best at this in the United States.”

In addition to school, work and teaching Byzantine chant, El Massih has produced CDs. He directed a choir of nine for “The Voice of the Lord,” a compilation of hymns from the Feast of Theophany chanted in English with traditional Byzantine melodies.

“When you love something; you want to give it all you can,” El Massih explained. “You have to practice so in the end you focus not on ‘How am I going to read this musical piece?’ but ‘How am I going to pray?’ How will this piece help me pray, understand the words, live the words – and feel the words?”

“Maybe I’ll end up giving a nice performance,” he reflected, “but when I chant on a piece, I am not focusing anymore on the music, I’m just singing from my heart – I’m contemplating the words … I’m living the words while I’m chanting.”

Brief recap of recent travels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I’m home until May.

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

The Voice of the Lord: Selected Hymns from the Feast of Theophany

Yesterday I came to home to an unexpected surprise: a complimentary copy of The Voice of the Lord: Selected Hymns from the Feast of Theophany, a new recording of Byzantine chant in English dedicated to the memory of Sonia Belcher. Sonia was a dear friend of my priest and his family, and when she passed last February, Fr. Peter spoke about her quite a bit. This CD is quite the labor of love, to say the least, and proceeds from it will go to support The Theophany School in Boston, an Orthodox Christian school which began largely as a result of Sonia’s effort and perseverance.

The collaborators on the project are impressive, to say the least. Hieromonk Ephraim of St. Anthony’s Monastery (aka “Papa Ephraim”) composed the English-language versions of the hymns specifically for the recording (music found here under the entry for Theophany, 6 January); the protopsaltis is Rassem El Massih, a graduate of the Archdiocese of Tripoli’s School of Byzantine Music, and the choir roster is a who’s who of the new generation of Byzantine cantors in AOCNA — including Gregory Abdalah, Basil Crow, Jamil Samara, and Khalil Samara. Dn. Nicholas, Sonia’s husband, is also a part of the ensemble. As the notes say, the goal was to produce a recording of traditionally chanted Byzantine hymns re-composed for the English music, and specifically in the style idiomatic to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

I’ve only listened to it all the way through a couple of times thus far, but my initial impressions are that the result of their efforts is top-drawer through and through. The ensemble sings together beautifully and is very well-coordinated; the English diction is clear as a bell, and hearing the melodies match the English texts as well as they do is very refreshing. The liner notes do a moving job of telling the reader who Sonia is and just why she inspired both the recording project as a whole as well as this particular repertoire.

One curious thing I’ll note is that, as good as the English diction is — compare, for example, with the Mt. Lebanon Choir — the kind of sound the ensemble produces made my ear expect Arabic when I first popped in the disc. It took about ten seconds for me to be able to “hear” the English; when I listened to it a second time, I couldn’t believe that I’d had a problem in the first place. Go figure.

I’d like to thank Basil Crow and Khalil Samara for sending me the disc, and all involved for contributing a fine example of what traditional Byzantine chant can sound like when sung well in English. I’d like to encourage anybody who knew Sonia, or who might be interested in Byzantine chant or Orthodox Christian education, to buy this CD; it’s a more than worthy effort, and a more than worthy cause.


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