Reminding us of something beyond this world, awakening us to our Byzantine roots, the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir is increasingly bringing the sonic equivalent of Byzantine icons to the laity, encouraging sobriety and spiritual awakening through the words and sounds of Byzantine chant. On Sunday, December 16, the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir shared a stage at Carnegie Hall with the Archdiocesan Youth Choir for a second year to present what has become a much-anticipated Christmas concert for Orthodox Christians and the public. In the concert, entitled, “Glory in the Highest”, held in Zankel Hall, the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir revealed the spiritual depth of this ancient form of ecclesiastical chant, and the Archdiocesan Youth Choir warmed the hearts of the full-house audience.
Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos, deacon to HIs Eminence Archbishop Demetrios and Director of the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music, under whose umbrella the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir falls, welcomed the audience. Directing his introductory remarks to His Eminence, Bishops and Metropolitans, clergy, The Honorable George Iliopoulos, Consul General of Greece in New York and The Honorable Koula Sophianou, Consul General of Cyprus in New York, and the sponsors who made the evening possible, Mr. and Mrs. Demetrios and Georgia Kaloidis, and the Cyprus Federation of America, whose president is Mr. Panikos Papanicolaou. Archdeacon Panteleimon spoke eloquently, saying, “On behalf of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, I would like to welcome you to this evening’s Christmas concert. On Christmas day the holy angels appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed, Glory to God in the highest. Tonight, the Archdiocesan Byzantine and Youth Choirs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese will join their voices to those of the angels in singing praises and thanks to God for all His blessings during this solemn Christmas season.”
Archdeacon Panteleimon defined the additional purpose of this year’s concert, which was a singular inspiration to those who attended. “We hope to combine the spirit and excitement of this Christmas concert with the important effort of our beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to reopen the ancient church of the Holy Archangels in Siyi, Turkey. We hope that the doxology offered by the shepherds on Christmas day may again be heard as it was for centuries by the faithful in this ancient church of the Holy Archangels. This is why all the proceeds from this concert will be offered to assist in this noble cause.”
Archdeacon Panteleimon went on to explain that the church of the Holy Archangels, or as it is known in Greek, the Taxiarches, was built in the 8th century and is located in the town of Siyi, Turkey in the Metropolis of Proussa. The church of the Taxiarches is an important church of the Metropolis of Proussa, given that it is among the oldest churches still standing in this eparchy. During the exchange of populations at the turn of the 20th century the Turkish government confiscated the church and rendered it closed to the faithful. “Now, almost 100 years later, our beloved Ecumenical Patriarch is diligently working, with the help of the local metropolitan, to reopen it as a house of worship,” he told the audience, “By attending this concert you have helped in making this sacred endeavor a reality.”
Addressing His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Archdeacon Panteleimon said, “I would like to firstly express the deepest and sincerest gratitude of all the members of the Byzantine and Youth choirs to His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America. It was during his tenure as Archbishop that both of these distinguished choirs were formed. You have given our youth, your Eminence, the possibility to learn, to develop, and to share the great gift of music. And tonight we offer this gift back to you and to everyone present. You have recently said that Christmas is the feast, par excellence, celebrating children, in as much as God became a child. In these difficult and tragic times your Eminence, your message to celebrate children invites us to be mindful of the great gifts which are our precious children. May the Lord our God grant you many many many years.”
The Archdeacon proceeded to especially thank Mr. Panikos Papanicolaou, “the heart and soul of the Youth Choir”, who has served, with the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Youth Choir since its establishment over ten years ago. “If it were not for his tremendous support of the choir both known and–for the vast majority of us–‘unknown’, the Youth Choir would not have ever had the extensive national and international exposure nor would it have received so many distinguished recognitions. Thank you, Paniko, for everything you have done, do and will do for the children of our Youth Choir. May the Lord grant you and your family His abundant blessings. After this, Archdeacon Panteleimon expressed his deepest gratitude to the major sponsors of the concert, Mr. and Mrs. Demetrios and Georgia Kaloidis, and the Cyprus Federation of America, whose president is Mr. Panikos Papanicolaou. May God continue to bless them and their families abundantly.”
The Archdeacon also thanked Professor Grammenos Karanos of Hellenic College Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, MA for preparing the program notes for the hymns in the concert and the ten seminarians who came from Boston with him to join the choir, “despite the fact that they will leave tonight to drive back to Boston, MA in order to begin their final exams tomorrow morning,” and expressed indebtedness to the president of Hellenic College Holy Cross for allowing the students to participate in the concert.
Before leaving the stage the Archdeacon presented the young Mr. Manolis Lambrakis Jr., a student in the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music since its establishment almost 3 years ago, whom he asked to convey, on behalf of the Youth Choir and the Byzantine Choir, their gratitude for attending this evening’s concert. Mr. Lambrakis, he said, ”has excelled beautifully in learning Byzantine music and we are very proud of him and his talent.” The Archdeacon chose young Lambrakis to speak, he said, for a couple of reasons, “First, because his Greek is better than mine!… Perhaps his English too!! Secondly, he was baptized in Constantinople in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Taxim Square. And from what he’s told me, he intends to baptize his firstborn child in the Church of the Holy Archangels in Proussa. For us members in the choir, he’s our angel.” Lambrakis performed his task with charisma and with equal precision in Greek and English.
The six transporting ecclesiastical psalms and hymns for the Christmas period chanted by the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, directed by Demetrios Kehagias (with English translation provided) were: “Who Is So Great A God As Our God You Are God Who Works Wonders”, composed by one of the greatest post-Byzantine composers, Perros Kouspazoglou Bereketis; “Law Reveal The Divine Nativity Of Christ”, composed by Georgios Raidestinos (1833-1889), Protopsaltis of the Great Church of Christ, and further arranged by Demetrios Kehagias; “What Shall We Offer You, 0 Christ” in an arrangement by Demetrios Kehagias; “Come Believers, Let Us See Where Christ has Been Born”, performed according to the manner of interpretation of Athanaios Panagiotides (1910-1989) one of the greatest chanters of the 20th century; “Christ is Born”, two Kanons, one composed by St. Kosmas, Bishop of Maiouma (8th century), the second composed by Kosmas’ foster brother, St. John of Damascus;
“Our Savior… Has Visited Us from On HIgh”, an ancient Exaspotilarion; “We Praise You – It Is Truly Right To Call You Blessed”, the setting composed by Michael Chatziathanasiou (1881-1948).
Archdeacon Panteleimon informed the GN that, “Byzantine music has a history that spans over one thousand years old. It is the oldest living musical culture in the world in terms of the uninterrupted usage of its notational system. It has its deepest roots in the musical practices of the ancient Greeks and in the liturgical traditions of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian communities. As such, it is a priceless, ecumenical cultural treasure that must be protected, promoted and cultivated. More importantly, however, it is the music of the Church, the music chanted and composed by Romanos the Melodist, John of Damascus and Ioannis Koukouzelis, the music that has accompanied the spiritual struggles of saints and sinners throughout the ages. It is at once glorious and modest, festive and compunctionate, rich and simple. It captures and expresses the Christian spirit of “joyful sorrow” like no other music. In contemporary America, this music can clear our mind from the countless distractions that bombard us daily, and help us seek what is true and beautiful. Ultimately, it can be a faithful companion on our journey to the source of all truth and beauty, our Creator Himself.”
The Archdiocesan Youth Choir, directed by Maria Koleva and with a nuanced and sensitively conceived piano accompaniment by Konstantin Valianatos, performed 15 selections one of which, “Prayer of the Children” was movingly performed in dedication to the victims of the Newton, Connecticut tragedy. Among the selections performed were a traditional Greek carol, “Kalanda of Kerkyra”, traditional American and English Christmas carols, an American Spiritual, and compositions by composers that included Mozart, Handel, and others and featuring the dazzling soloists, Fiora Kirou, Georgia Linaris, Eleftheria Papadopoulos, Maggie Papayiannis, and Divna Scepanovic.
Shortly after the formation of the Archdiocesan School of Music in October 2010, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America expressed a desire for the formation of a choir to promote the rich Byzantine musical heritage of the Orthodox Church. The Archbishop’s vision became a reality under the leadership of Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos. Archdeacon Panteleimon organized the musical talents of the chanters in the Direct Archdiocesan District and established the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir in December 2010 as a ministry of the Archdiocese. The Choir is comprised of Greek-American clergy and young men whose ages range from 16 to 40. The majority of the Choir members are established head-chanters (protopsaltes) in churches from within the Direct Archdiocesan District. All members of the Choir have had formal training in Byzantine music while some have even received advanced degrees in Byzantine music from conservatories in Athens and Thessaloniki. Mr. Demetrios Kehagias has directed the Choir since its inception.
On the feast day of the Three Hierarchs and Greek Letters in January of 2001, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America expressed his desire to create a youth choir to display the proud roots of our Hellenic heritage through music and our youth. With his spiritual guidance and his deep love for children and the beauty of music, the Archdiocesan Youth Choir was established during the spring of 2001. This vision became a reality under the inspirational leadership and guidance of Mr. Panikos Papanicolaou, and the talent of professional music conductor, Maria Koleva. The members of the Choir consist of children who are students of the Greek American Parochial, Afternoon Greek and Sunday Schools, as well as colleges from the New York metropolitan area.