Passage of the Soul | Choral Whispers of Eastern Orthodoxy
Sunday 2 October 2016 at 7:30 pm
Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
45 Molesworth St, Wellington, New Zealand

A concert of choral music inspired by Eastern Orthodoxy featuring Passage of the Soul by Dimitrios Theodoridis in memory of his mother.

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IN LOVING MEMORY OF ANTHULA THEODORIDIS

REVIEW

by Calvin Scott

There was a heightened sense of reverence communicated by the music, allowing it to resonate further in our minds, and intensify the intimacy of what was a truly memorable event.

Read the full review

The diversity of contemporary New Zealand society is the result of waves of migration over almost two centuries during which time a number of communities, since settling in New Zealand, have actively preserved their own unique cultural voice, practising and maintaining their artistic traditions across the generations. For this reason, it was of particular interest – and a privilege – to listen to some truly exquisite choral music inspired from within Wellington's own Greek Orthodox community. My previous experience of music of the Byzantine and Greek Orthodox Churches was limited to the famous recordings of Sister Marie Keyrouz and attending Passage of the Soul | Choral Whispers of Eastern Orthodoxy proved to be a very personal, direct and wonderfully local extension of that experience, presenting me again with the beauty of ancient Byzantine musical traditions and also tracing their influence on subsequent musical creativity through the ages.

Although the concert was originally going to take place in the distinctive Byzantine-style Greek Orthodox Church – The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary – on Hania Street, for a number of health and safety reasons the concert had to take place elsewhere, and was hosted in St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral on Molesworth Street. Candlelight, incense, and some strategically placed Greek Orthodox icons at the church’s entrance created an atmosphere that quickly allowed one to forget that we were seated in a building that symbolises quite a different history and version of what is essentially the same religion.

The Wellington-based vocal ensemble Baroque Voices has been mesmerising audiences since 1994 with their beautiful performances and innovative programmes of early music interspersed with recently created works. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the group has consciously and publicly ventured into Byzantine territory and, as always, their performance was immaculate. The ensemble was comprised on this occasion of nine accomplished singers, including their director, soprano Pepe Becker who, while conducting, plucked her beautiful high crystalline notes effortlessly from the acoustic stratosphere. While most works were performed acapella, organist Jonathan Berkahn provided sensitive accompaniment on occasion, and also performed a solo piece at the start of the concert as a kind of introit into a liturgical and reflective atmosphere.

Very informative and detailed programme notes guided the listener through a diverse range of works inspired by Greek and Russian Orthodoxy: the texts that formed the basis of the choral works were printed in a multi-lingual format with very polished English translations alongside the original Greek, Russian and German texts. While it is not at all unusual in a live concert nowadays to hear choral and vocal works sung in Russian or German, it was truly fascinating to hear the Greek language and experience words in their original meaning, such as ψυχη (psyche) denoting “soul”, or φωνη (phone), meaning “voice” – reminding us that something like a “mobile phone” isn't such a modern idea. It was also wonderful to hear a familiar text such as the Lord's Prayer – in lovely a setting by Igor Stravinsky – sung in the original Greek of the New Testament.

As the sub-title of the concert - Whispers of Eastern Orthodoxy – suggests, the concert brought together a range of works that showed how original Byzantine liturgical and musical elements continue resonate – even if only as a hushed murmur – in later Western music through the centuries. The pieces all presented similar sound worlds, often on the basis of a characteristic sustained bass drone, or bourdon tone, with adventurous harmonic and melodic explorations occurring above it.

The first group of choral pieces, drawn from the Russian school, were composed by Maximilian Osseyevich Steinberg (a student of Rimsky-Korsakov), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky and the ensemble innovatively sang them all using the original Greek liturgical texts rather than the translations used by the composers. Then we jumped way back into the 15th century for an original Compline (or “Evening”) Hymn by the late medieval Byzantine composer Manuel Gazes, showing this composer’s experimentation with polyphony. From there it was back to our time and the Song for Athene by English composer Sir John Tavener who died in 2013 and who had converted to Russian Orthodoxy in 1977. This piece, beautifully rendered by the ensemble, was probably one of the few pieces already known to the audience, having become famous after being performed at Lady Diana’s state funeral in September 1997. We could hear the parallels to the 15th century hymn that preceded it. A series of shorter settings followed, featuring works by the Greek-American church musician Frank Desby (1922 – 1992) who pioneered Eastern Orthodox musical traditions in the United States.

The highlight of the concert was a new work by local Wellington composer Dimitrios Theodoridis who was singing as a bass voice in the group. His piece – Passage of the Soul – was dedicated to the memory his mother, and represented a reflection on the transience of life – “…Flowers wither, and dreams pass, and so all has an end.” This work combined Byzantine drones with wonderfully performed chromatic patterns and chords that were intensified in their sacral effect by the additional use of handbells.

The final group of pieces contrasted a 17th century setting of the Nicene Creed by Parthenios Sgoutas (also sung in Greek) with two works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, a resonating organ work and a choral setting of an old German antiphon “O Morgenstern” (O morning star).

At the conclusion of the concert, koliva – a kind of boiled wheat that is used liturgically in the Eastern Orthodox Churches – was served to audience members. Orthodox Christians consider koliva to be symbolic of death and resurrection. There was a heightened sense of reverence communicated by the music, allowing it to resonate further in our minds, and intensify the intimacy of what was a truly memorable event.

ARCHIVE

Photos & recordings of the concert
  • “Baroque Voices… revealed the true beauty of the human voice.”

    —Southland Times
  • “Theodoridis has an impressive musical imagination.”

    —Alan Wells
  • “… five of New Zealand’s most gifted and experienced musicians in the field of early music gave a delightful concert…”

    —The Evening Post
  • “… a performance that could have come from one of the world’s finest specialist ensembles.”

    —The Evening Post
  • “The singing of the early madrigals was extremely fine and displayed taste, scholarship and skill.”

    —The Dominion Post

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Anonymous (16), Marie Baker, Julien Boutiflat, Jo Bozinoff, Jonathan Cweorth, Sandy Geeves, Charles Wesley Hanna, Jan Heilmeier, Holger Kirchhoff, Matthew Leese, Andrew Euan MacFarlane, Ritsa Mag, Judith Miller, Panos Philandrinos, John Psathas, Alex Theodoridis, Natalie Theodoridis, Vangelis Vitalis, Jeremy Williams, Ben Woods

Special Thanks
Vicky Barakaki (translations), Mayk Blattgerste (concert manager), Stefan Bleyl (artwork), John Michael Boyer (sheetmusic), Eliot Haberstock (graphic design), Grammenos Karanos (referrals), Vicki Pappas (referrals and recommendations), Pantelitsa Paraskeva (translations), Panos Philandrinos (sheetmusic), Gustav Rugel (video editing), Finn Simpson (graphic design), Derek Williams (handbells), Ben Woods (typesetting), Christopher Yokas (sheetmusic)

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