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Posts Tagged 'richard toensing'

CD Review: Archangel Voices, Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God

I-112Archangel Voices is an Orthodox vocal ensemble that specializes in liturgical choral repertoire by present-day composer, particularly focusing on English-language settings (either composed for English texts or adaptations of existing settings for English). Their Artistic Director is Dr. Vladimir Morosan, a scholar of Russian Orthodox choral music in particular (he is the translator of Johann von Gardner’s venerable series Russian Church Singing, volume 1 and volume 2, he has his own monograph on Russian church choirs right before the Revolution, and he has published several critical and performing editions of Russian choral repertoire), and an advocate of Orthodox liturgical music more generally.

Archangel Voices is one of the outlets for Morosan’s advocacy, and Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God is their sixth release on disc. The intent of the recording is to represent the vast diversity of Orthodox hymnody about the Mother of God — hymns from the daily cycle of services as well as the Marian feasts, special services, and also para-liturgical compositions. There is not only a rich collection of hymns but also composers; there are many Slavic composers such as Chesnokov and Bortniansky presented here, as well as composers active in present-day North America, such as Benedict Sheehan, Morosan himself, and Psalm 103 project composers Richard Toensing and Kurt Sander.

This CD is a different kind of aesthetic than that of some of the other recordings of Orthodox music that are out there. Cappella Romana’s approach is to do a variety of repertoire, make informed stylistic choices for the performance, and be as consistent with those stylistic choices as it can — an “early music” approach, if you like. Kurt Sander’s As Far as the East is from the West sought to reproduce the aesthetic of a large parish choir in a Russian choir loft. Holy Cross’ recent release was simply the sound of their chapel services transferred to disc. Samir Cohlmia’s recording of Dormition chants captures the aural experience of the Byzantine cantor as soloist. And so on. Archangel Voices does something a little different; rather than model themselves on a particular existing Orthodox musical aesthetic or attempt to be stylistic chameleons, they are more along the lines of a Western-style chamber chorale, made up of well-trained musicians who are flexible enough to sing pretty much whatever is put in front of them and make it sound good with a consistent, well-blended, shimmery, warm sound. Perhaps one could argue that Archangel Voices represents one model of what a good American parish choir could be; good enough musicians to sing virtually anything as themselves instead of trying to sound like something else.

It’s an approach that certainly does sufficient justice to most of the repertoire on this disc; particularly nice from the Slavic selections are Chesnokov’s general canon to the Mother of God, Nikolsky’s Megalynarion for Pascha (I am thankful to Morosan and co. that they opted for something less overdone than Balakirev’s setting, which is generally treated out here in the Midwest as the national anthem of American Orthodoxy), and Lvovsky’s Exaposteilarion for the Dormition. In general, I will say that the North American composers who are writing for the English language tend to stand out a little better; perhaps it is not surprising that music written for and sung in the same language sounds better than adaptations. Among this group, Morosan’s Koinonikon for Marian feasts, Nazo Zakkak’s setting of “I have thee as a fountain” from the Paraklesis service, Sander’s Megalynarion for the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, and Toensing’s setting of “Awed by the beauty” from the Third Mode kathismata are all particularly lovely.

The recording isn’t completely flawless; there are a handful of moments that are a touch rough-feeling, where the ensemble doesn’t quite shimmer as much as they normally do. The ornaments on the ubiquitous paraliturgical Georgian hymn “O Vineyard, fair and new” don’t work as sung; they’re a mismatch with the style the choir employs otherwise, and as a result they sound like mistakes and baubles rather than specific ornamentation choices. To the extent that there’s a pastoral model here for choirs, I would suggest that the lesson here is, ornaments need to be treated as organic parts of a chosen style, not merely additional notes to be sung; if that’s not a practical or pastoral possibility, then it is an acceptable choice to leave the ornaments out. Also, given the ensemble’s stated objective in the booklet “to embrace various traditions and styles of Orthodox church music as they are manifest in the practice of parishes in North America”, it seems like something of a missed opportunity to not include any of the Greek-American composers who have written Orthodox choral music in English, or to use any of the growing library of settings of Byzantine chant composed for English (polyphonic adaptations of what are already themselves adaptations of Byzantine melodies aren’t really the same thing). Sometimes “pan-Orthodox” appears to mean, in practice, “everybody but the Greeks”, and opportunities like this would seem to be appropriate settings for trying to combat that. Alas; I’m sure there are reasons for such choices.

These are minor issues; Panagia is a high-quality effort overall from a high-quality ensemble, and very much worth checking out.

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The St. John of Damascus Society

I have been making random references to something called “The St. John of Damascus Society” for a few months now, and I can finally say something a bit more concrete.

The really short version is that in the planning for the Orthodox Music Symposium at Indiana University, it became apparent that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for there to be a group that had administrative and financial independence from the church for purposes of putting together such things. We were piggybacking onto the parish for our tax-exempt status, and that nearly cost us a couple of our major supporters; plus, it would just be cleaner if we were able to have our own checkbook. The initial idea was something like a “Friends of Music at All Saints” or “All Saints Music Boosters”, and I went to Hal Sabbagh, a longtime chanter at and founding member of All Saints, to see what he thought. He was supportive of the idea, and was willing to help out however he could.

We incorporated as a non-profit in the state of Indiana last July; the next step was tax-exempt status, which meant assembling a board. Our Advisory Board consists of all of the presenters for the Symposium — John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Kurt Sander, Richard Toensing — as well as Matthew Arndt, an old friend of mine, one of the cantors at St. Raphael of Brooklyn Church in Iowa City and music theory professor at University of Iowa (as well as a former student of Richard Toensing’s). Our Executive Board consists of: Hal Sabbagh, president; Vicki Pappas, national chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, vice-president; Laura Willms and Brian Rogers, two more very supportive cantors at All Saints, are secretary and treasurer, respectively; rounding out the Executive Board are Franklin Hess, coordinator of the Modern Greek program at Indiana University, and Patrick Michelson, the newly-hired (as of the 2011-12 academic year) Russian Orthodoxy specialist in IU’s Religious Studies department.

All of these people gave generously of their time, effort, and advice. By November we had everything we needed to assemble our application for federal tax-exempt status, and that went in the mail on 14 November.

As Hal found out over the phone with the IRS two days ago, our application for federal tax-exempt status was granted on Monday of this week, and we will be receiving a letter within the next couple of weeks with our number. So, time to get serious.

The St. John of Damascus Society, with everybody who is involved, has developed its scope significantly beyond being All Saints’ music boosters. The basic idea is to promote the idea of excellence in traditional forms of Orthodox music as good outreach — that singing well and singing prayerfully not only do not constitute a dichotomy, but it can serve as a powerful witness to those around us. We have a number of ideas about things we want to do locally, regionally, and nationally, and while we’ve waited for tax-exempt status to be sewn up before we went public with anything, I can tell you you’ll be hearing more very soon, including ways you can be involved.

We hope to have a website up shortly; in the meantime, if you’re interested in the St. John of Damascus Society based on this little teaser, would you mind filling out this form? That’ll make it really easy for us to get announcements to you as we make them. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Thanks very much, and I will have more to say very soon!

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…”

So it has come to this.

As I suspected might happen, the talks I gave as a Lenten retreat at St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA this last weekend have been posted to Ancient Faith Radio.

A few things: I’ll have a full write-up of the Emmaus trip a little later, but I had a lovely time. Fr. Andrew Damick is a wonderful priest with a wonderful parish, and I very much enjoyed getting to know all of them.

Nobody needs to tell me that there are some baubles in both talks, certainly in the musical examples, and then there are a couple of points that I certainly simplified for purposes of time. I also got a couple of things wrong (Philotheos Kokkinos is in fact a saint, as Fr. Andrew pointed out to me afterward, and Timothy McGee appears to be Canadian, not American, but at least he’s North American, I suppose). Fr. Andrew also mentions in my introduction that I’m “fluent” in Greek, which I most certainly am not, but he was being kind. On the musical baubles, I was also there as a guest cantor, by the time the first talk happened I had already sung three services, and while I was just mentally waking up by the time I went on, I was starting to lose a bit of musical steam. I know, excuses, excuses. Nonetheless, on the whole, I’m pleased with how they turned out.

This does represent at least a “soft opening” for the Saint John of Damascus Society, and while we’re still waiting for our tax-exempt status to come back before we really unveil everything, I can say that http://www.johnofdamascus.org is registered and will be live once tax-exempt status is in hand and we can really be open for business, as it were. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by anything you hear in these talks, by all means ask me.

Some last-minute gift ideas…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audio from Orthodox Music Symposium now on Ancient Faith Radio

The talks from “We Knew Not If We Were In Heaven Or On Earth: Music, Liturgy, and Beauty in Orthodox Christianity” are now posted on Ancient Faith Radio’s website. Many thanks to John Maddex for making them available through this medium! Also, photos from the event can be viewed here — thanks to Anna Pougas for being the day’s official (more or less) photographer!


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