Passage of the Soul – commemorative and reflective beauty at Wellington Cathedral

Choral Whispers of Eastern Orthodoxy

Baroque Voices
Directed by Pepe Becker

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul,
Molesworth Street, Wellington

Sunday 2nd October, 2016

It was originally intended that “Passage of the Soul”, the name given to a concert of Eastern Orthodox choral music, would take place in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, in Wellington’s Hania Street. For those of us who hadn’t been to the venue the chance to do so represented an additional incentive to attend this Baroque Voices concert, which was evocatively subtitled “Choral Whispers of Eastern Orthodoxy”. As it turned out, circumstances prevented the Hania Street venue’s use, so at short notice the concert was transferred to the Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul in Molesworth Street.

I was able to speak with a couple of group members immediately after the concert had finished, and got the impression from them that it was a kind of swings-and-roundabouts situation regarding the different venues – yes, it would have been more appropriate in some ways to have performed the concert in the Hania Street church, but as it turned out the Molesworth Street Cathedral’s greater seating capacity was actually needed to accommodate the audience numbers who turned up! – and the Cathedral’s renowned acoustic added an extra sonic dimension to the atmosphere created by the beauty of the music and its performance.

The concert was the result of a collaboration between the Baroque Voices Ensemble, and one of its former members,  Dimitrios Theodoridis, who’s currently based in Berlin. While holidaying throughout Europe a couple of years ago he decided to stay put in Berlin for a while, eventually joining a couple of vocal ensembles and regularly performing with them. The death of his mother, Anthula Theodoridis, inspired him to write a work Passage of the Soul, and then to organise a concert in which the work could be performed. With the help of his former colleague, Baroque Voices director Pepe Becker, he was able to put together a sequence of pieces which framed his own work in an appropriate context and arrange for the sequence to be performed.

Theodoridis wanted a predominantly meditative ambience to prevail throughout the concert, so we were requested not to applaud, but let the resonances do their work. He asked us to regard the concert more as a religious service than a “performance”, in order to emphasise the occasion’s commemorative aspect. Aiding and abetting this feeling was the use of incense, which was burned beforehand in the church, and whose redolent flavour straight away elevated one’s expectations to a kind of ritualistic state, completely removed from any dynamic of performance and entertainment.

The “Choral Whispers” of the concert’s subtitle found expression in a number of pieces from different eras, by composers who were unknown to me, names such as Manuel Gazes (15th Century), Parthenios Sgoutas (17th Century), Dobri Hristov (1875-1941) and Frank Desby (1922-92). Though largely meditative, the different pieces evoked whole worlds of varied feeling through different timbres and colours, textures and dynamics.  Those pieces written by the remarkable American-born Frank Desby, who became an authority on Greek plainchant and polyphonic music seemed to express something of the on-going “flavour of interaction” between traditional Byzantine chant and Western polyphony.  Desby’s “Those Baptised into Christ” contrived to my ears to freely float between both traditional simplicity and harmonic enrichment, the whole while preserving a sense of drawing from impulses deeply rooted in the past.

An organ solo (played by Jonathan Berkahn) began the service, accompanying the placement of a commemorative candle in honour of Anthula Theodoridis, a deeply personal moment followed by a very open-hearted, public and demonstrative Alliluia from Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week (where possible Dimitrios Theodoridis rewrote the texts of these hymns and meditations in Greek). He was, he said, heartened by the example of Igor Stravinsky in his setting of the Lord’s prayer, set by the composer in Latin from Old Church Slavonic. Stravinsky most interestingly was attracted by Latin as a medium “not dead but turned to stone, and so monumentalised as to have become immune from all risk of vulgarisation”.

Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov were all represented in this concert (Stravinsky adored Tchaikovsky’s music, as did Rachmaninov!). Theodoridis interestingly reset Tchaikovsky’s Cherubic Hymn to Greek words, but not Rachmaninov’s contribution, an exerpt from his  “Vespers”, which retained its original Church Slavonic. The performances of all three composers’ music were vibrant, tremulous and deeply-wrought. Each was notable for giving the listener a different perspective on its composer to the somewhat Westernised “classical music” mode one usually hears, an outcome, perhaps, of each composer’s interaction with text and as a result “speaking“ with more-than-usual Slavic force in their musical responses.

Of other well-known composers, both John Taverner (1944-2013) and Arvo Pärt were represented by characteristic pieces, Taverner’s beautiful piece “Song for Athene” having the distinction of being performed at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, though written four years earlier as a tribute by the composer to a young family friend of Greek descent, Athene Hariades, who had been accidentally killed. Here, the exchanges between the “Alleluia” chants and the invocations were varied and haunting, the ensemble making the most of the dramatic key-change from minor to major just before the words “Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you”.

Theodoridis’s own composition reflected his family’s Greek cultural and spiritual heritage, using references to the Greek Orthodox funeral service via a hymn, Eonia I mnimi (Eternal Memory), the theme from which haunted the piece’s conclusion, reiterating the prayer “May her soul rest in peace”. An alto solo (sung by Andrea Cochrane) ran like a thread through the piece, its strand resonating with an awareness of approaching death and the desire to farewell loved ones, before gradually letting go, the soul comforted by the gentle sounds of the handbells and the angelic voices inviting it to “sleep in peace”.

Arvo Pärt’s piece for organ solo “Pari Intervallo”, performed by Jonathan Berkahn immediately after this enabled us to continue our spiritual and emotional trajectories set up by what had gone immediately before, the meditative qualities of the sounds and their resonances allowing our sensibilities what seems like unlimited time and space to explore and be in touch with ourselves. This having been completed and a declaration of faith then made in the form of a 17th Century setting by Parthenios Sgoutas of the Nicean Creed,  we returned to the music of Arvo Pärt to conclude the concert, “O Morgenstern” (Morning Star), appropriately a piece whose tone-clusters and resulting harmonic tensions gave the impression of a soul striving towards the light, seeking a kind of affirmation in the onset of a new day.

The absence of applause provided ample proof of the capacity for listeners to express appreciation, awe and gratitude towards composers and performers alike in silence – at the end we were able to take away and continue to relish in tranquillity those resonances which the performers had so enchantingly crafted and brought alive for us.

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