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Greek Orthodox Chant - Byzantine Patmos (2005)



I'm not Greek and I'm not an orthodox Christian so entering this church was an otherworldly experience for me as was listening to the 19 member Greek Byzantine Choir. The people sitting around me were members of the church's congregation. To congregation members, gold walls plastered in icons were a common event, even, an everyday experience, as was listening to a Byzantine choir. And yet, a visit from the Greek Byzantine Choir was not an everyday experience so I was surprised that there were few attendees outside of the church's congregation at the concert. Someone even asked me if I'm Greek and was baffled when I told her that I was attending the concert because I enjoy medieval sacred music traditions.

The choir led by Director and founder Lycourgos Angelopoulos, (who formed the choir in 1977), entered in a procession from the back of the church in which they sung, Kontakion of the Akathistos Hymn composed in the 7th Century by an anonymous composer. Once the vocalists were ensconced near the elaborate church altar, they performed Communion Verse for the Transfiguration composed by John Koukouzelis (1280-1360). The contrast between the choir members dressed in black robes and the icon art that surrounded them was distracting at times and other times mesmerizing.

Although many sacred choral traditions are sung in polyphony and graced with lush harmonies, Byzantine chants are monophonic with a few of the vocalists singing bass drone. Musicologist Michalis Adamis on the Duke University site describes this better.

"Byzantine Music is monophonic. It has not called on parameters of musical construction, such as harmony and counterpoint, yet it has produced a wealth of extraordinary rich melodies, as well as, complex musical forms and carried the monophonic genre to heights of refinement and wisdom… Singing a melody always includes its cantillion, together with a continues drone accompaniment."

The remainder of the first set of liturgical chants featured mostly Psalmody sung in Greek. After a long intermission, the choir returned without fanfare and presented liturgical chants that would normally be sung in the Greek Orthodox Church on the Sunday prior to Christmas. These compositions beginning with Three Heirmoi from the Canon for the Sunday before Christmas and ending with Kratima in the First Mode by John Trapezountios (d. 1700), were longer and seemed more complex than the chants performed during the first half of the program. Lycourgos Angelopoulos and other choir members performed longer solos accompanied by an intense drone which reminded me of the two duduk players featured in traditional Armenian music where one instrument carries the main melody and the other holds the same note through the entire song, creating a continuous drone. And yes, the vocalists providing drone perform an important role. At times the pace and passion of the vocalists increased, but compared to other sacred musical traditions familiar to me, I found the Byzantine choir vocals somewhat restrained. Although Byzantine chants possess a unique beauty, the chants did not provoke an emotional response in me, mainly because this was my first real exposure to the tradition.

The choir performed a short encore and then ended with a procession as they exited the church. The extremely polite audience refrained from applauding until the end of each set and for some members of the packed audience; this was a difficult endeavor since they were quite passionate about the Byzantine chant tradition. There were two women sitting near me that were emotionally drawn to the music and seemed quite knowledgeable about the tradition. Occasionally one of the women would wipe tears from her eyes. Of course, she might have understood the Greek language in which the chants were performed and she seemed familiar with each chant in general. There are times when it helps to be an insider to a given tradition.

We were witnessing a concert, which removed the choir out of its normal realm of a church service. The choir was performing samples of what would be presented in either a Sunday service or special religious occasion to enhance the worship experience. However, for those of us who do not attend church services, this is a good way in which we can witness various sacred music traditions, either from a spiritual-but-not-religious standpoint or a scholarly one. And then there are journalists such as myself and radio presenters who are curious about these ancient chants. I would rather see this music presented in a church rather than a concert hall because the church acoustics and atmosphere does enhance the experience of listening to sacred medieval music. Leaving baffled churchgoers in our wake is a small price to pay for getting closer to sacred music traditions. And in fact, if outsiders cherish these musical treasures, that can only enhance congregational members' appreciation for these traditions. And it certainly helps with preserving the traditions for future generations to enjoy.

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