The manifestation of God, through Orthodox chanting

25 Mar

RABIEH: Invocations of God manifest themselves in a multitude of ways. Monks devote their lives to isolated contemplation; hermits cut themselves off from human society altogether. A Julian of Norwich-esque mystic writes, a Michaelangelo transforms a chapel’s ceiling into a work of art. And religious writers compose hymns.

Music is one of the most unifying forms of representing and rousing love for God. Whether one is listening to others dedicate their voices skyward or participating, the sense of a shared exalted experience can be overwhelming.

It is perhaps for this reason that church choirs remain popular. Hymns provide occasion for a unity of contemplation, devotion, confession and celebration – they allow singers and observers alike to feel that they are part of a divine landscape, closer both to God and the others present.

Little wonder, then, that a liturgy – the words and music of Mass – can have such potency. And the Orthodox liturgy of the Sofia Orthodox Choir (SOC) is no exception.

As part of the Al-Bustan festival, the SOC performed in Beirut’s St. George Cathedral Tuesday and in the St. Elias Greek Orthodox Church of Rabieh Wednesday. The group has toured the world’s best and brightest cathedrals, venues that provide apt expression for the harmony of their voices.

According to Al-Bustan literature, Eastern Orthodox Church music “never fails to move and stir emotions, whether one is religious or not.”

A grand claim, but Wednesday’s performance suggests that it is a reasonable one. The SOC’s Rabieh performance, “Movement of the Soul,” was wholly absorbing.

The two-hour program was constructed around the troparion, a form of short hymn. Deriving from the Greek “tropos,” meaning “something repeated,” the troparion depends on repetition and is an ancient part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

The SOC’s conductor, Miroslav Popsavov, explained that “all saints have troparions sung for their glorification.” The basis for any troparion is the life of a particular saint.

Wednesday’s troparion was to the Holy Brothers Cyril and Methodius, who invented the Bulgarian alphabet. Popsavov explained that all countries of Slavic origin – such as Serbia, Russia, Slovakia – use this alphabet. The saints are credited with providing “opportunity for the Slavic countries to become united through language.”

Considering the importance of language in “Movement of the Soul,” this seems apt. Instruments are not permitted in the Greek Orthodox liturgy: music is entirely vocal, with men’s voices providing both tune and lyrics. The effect is an intoning chant that hums and drifts on dual levels, an ongoing backdrop with occasional surges forward, usually higher in pitch.

An a cappella choir, the SOC’s is an art form which is technically difficult. Participation in the choir is an act of religious devotion, but divine inspiration alone cannot render it. It requires lifelong training.

Each member of the 18-strong choir is professional, the SOC being just one of their “jobs,” Popsavov pointed out. Some sing in the Bulgarian National Philharmonic Choir, others in the National Radio Mixed Choir. Others perform in the opera.

The SOC has a female and a male choir, although only the male choir took part in this year’s festival. Many of the men have been musically educated since the age of five, with their voices trained for Orthodox chanting as soon as they deepen at puberty.

Now that each member has attained a professional level, regular practice is a mere twice-weekly event in the Cathedral of the Patriarch of Bulgaria, St. Nedelya, with additional practice before performances.

The Orthodox chant is an elusive art form, one that requires a particularly attentive kind of intuition. Not only is the subject-matter intensely religious and dependent on its power to provoke a mirroring feeling in observers, but each choir member must concentrate on the voice, pitch and pace of other choral members while maintaining his own.

The focus of the performers was almost as impressive to witness as the strength of their voices. With each face sincere and solemn, the choir presented a picture of concord – indeed, a picture of the unification that the short troparion aimed to induce through voice.

Throughout the performance, every eye was focused on the conductor and every chest directed toward him, creating a semi-circle of stares that seemed impossible to penetrate. Even the way the choir entered and exited the stage area was peaceful, each member holding back his step and allowing the other to proceed slowly, mutely and with a sober gravity.

Offstage, their animation and vigor told a different story, the thrill of performance clearly as exciting to them as to any actor. In conversation the men interrupt one another, and then give way to giggling smiles that confirm their onstage solidarity.

The oldest member of the choir was born in 1943, and the youngest is a mere 26. In light of the fact that they perform together just twice a week, their accord is remarkable.

Orthodox chanting is certainly music to contemplate to. With rumbling baritones followed by tour-de-force surges of a shriller sound, it is elusive and vague, almost impossible to describe or even evoke without some gesture of poetry (or ideally a concert you can see for yourself). Wednesday’s performance was 18 rich voices calling to God and depicting his saints – and, given those harmonious facial expressions, the performances seemed to be at a level closer to divinity than most attain.

The SOC had a power that reached into the audience too. Few performances, in the Al-Bustan Festival or otherwise, manage to keep an audience so completely silent throughout.

But this audience – and though the church was not full, it was busy – remained somber and reflective. Like Popsavov and this masterful choir, their absorption was total.

If one wants to contemplate the divine, Orthodox chants might just be the perfect art form.


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