From Constantinople to California – Program Notes Part Two

The Eastern Roman Empire—commonly called “Byzantium” after the ancient name of its capital Constantinople — not only survived the downfall of Rome by a millennium, but also created a musical tradition that remains both alive and influential today. In From Constantinople to California Cappella Romana will follow this tradition from its medieval origins to contemporary Los Angeles.

II – Choral Music of the Contemporary Greek Orthodox Church

Greek Orthodox polyphonic choral singing, which was firmly established in mainland Greece with the founding of a male choir for the chapel of King George I and his Russian-born Queen Olga by Alexandros Kantakouzenos (1824–92), reached its apogee in the first decades of the twentieth century and then gradually began to decline after World War II with the revival of Byzantine chanting.

Michael Adamis (b. 1929) has bridged the worlds of Byzantine and Western music throughout a distinguished career that has encompassed directing the Royal Chapel choir of Greece, teaching Byzantine music at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, musicological research (including the first study of polyphony by Gazes), and the presidency of the Greek Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (1975–85). In his mature works Adamis shuns Western functional harmony, cultivating instead a free approach to polyphony inspired by Byzantine chant and Greek folk music. Whereas his settings of the Easter hymn “Christ Has Risen” and the First Ode of the Great Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God are straightforward harmonizations of Byzantine melodies, Radiant Cloud is conceived on a grander scale. Dedicated to the memory of Thessalonian choral conductor Yannis Mantakas and premiered by Cappella Romana in August 2003, Radiant Cloud is based on two hymns for the feast of Christ’s Transfiguration (6 August). In his transformation of their traditional chants, the composer evokes through his superimposition of highly ornamented melodic lines both the divine radiance on Tabor and the world of Greek cantorial practice.

Polyphony for the Greek Royal Chapel was overshadowed in Greek American churches by the music of John Sakellarides (1853?–1938), an Athenian cantor who sought to purge Byzantine chant from alleged Oriental contamination by proffering a reformed repertory of his own devising. After the Second World War, composers in California began to transform the legacy of Sakellarides through a partial return to earlier chant repertories and more sophisticated approaches to arranging Byzantine melodies. The founder of this “West Coast School” was Frank Desby (b. 1922), who served as director of music at this cathedral from its opening in 1952 until his death in 1992. While gaining postgraduate degrees at the University of Southern California for theses on medieval and post-Byzantine chant, Desby employed his knowledge of Byzantine, Russian and Western music to reshape Greek American liturgical singing. He began by creating harmonizations inspired by Renaissance prototypes and borrowing from the style of performance developed for Gregorian chant by the monks of the French abbey of Solesmes. How these approaches differed from traditional Byzantine chanting may be heard in our performance of three versions of the Apolytikion of the Holy Cross: as published in a Constantinopolitan anthology of 1882 and as transcribed into staff notation and harmonized by Desby in 1948. The Forty-fold “Kyrie eleison” for the Litany of the Holy Cross from 1979 is harmonized in a more modern style and includes a brief episode of polytonality.

This concert concludes with music by Greek Americans who were colleagues or students of Desby, often working together with him in the Federation of Greek Orthodox Choirs of the Western States (now the Church Music Federation of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco). By academic training a specialist in medieval literature, Theodore Bogdanos (b. 1932) has served the Orthodox Church as a cantor and choirmaster. In his setting of the Kontakion of the Dead, Bogdanos reworks Byzantine chant in a manner reminiscent of the ways in which late 19th-century European composers appropriated Renaissance style. Peter Michaelides (b. 1930) received his doctorate in composition from the University of Southern California and composed a small body of elegant settings of Byzantine chants in Greek and English during the 1960s, among which is his arrangement of Sakellarides’ melody for the ancient vesperal hymn Phos hilaron (“O Joyful Light”).

We represent the next generation of the “West Coast School” of Greek Orthodox choral music with a pair of sacred works not written for Byzantine liturgical use. Lord, I Cry unto Thee is a setting of verses from Psalms 140(141) and 56(57) by Steven G. Cardiasmenos (b. 1958), who has served since 1985 as choir director at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Belmont, California. Neal Desby grew up in this cathedral as the son of Frank and is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Composition at USC. His Song on a Religious Text sets the Kyrie of the Roman Mass for solo soprano and seven-part mixed chorus.

The prolific Tikey Zes (b. 1927) also received his doctorate in composition from the USC and like Bogdanos, was a professor at San Jose State University. His Communion Verse for Sundays was written and dedicated in 1984 to Frank Desby, who in 1956 had composed a popular choral setting of the same chant by Sakellarides.

From Constantinople to California

Cappella Romana presents their upcoming LIVE IN GREECE recording program in a Memorial Day Weekend Series:

Friday, May 25 – 7pm
Encino Presbyterian Church
Los Angeles, CA

Saturday, May 26 – 4pm
St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Los Angeles, CA