Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

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Cappella Records is pleased to announce the October 23 release of Benedict Sheehan’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the world première recording of a major new choral work of elegance and beauty. The Liturgy is performed by the professional Saint Tikhon Choir, conducted by the composer.

Sheehan’s Liturgy is the first of four planned releases on Cappella Records produced by multi-GRAMMY® Award winner Blanton Alspaugh and the engineering team at Soundmirror. Soundmirror’s outstanding orchestral, solo, opera, and chamber recordings have received more than 100 GRAMMY® nominations and awards, with releases on every major classical label.

This is also the first release of The Saint Tikhon Choir on Cappella Records. The Choir recently recorded a collaboration on Naxos with three other choirs and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Leonard Slatkin, which debuted at #1 on Billboard. They also previously recorded the sacred works of Benedict Sheehan for Saint Tikhon’s Monastery Press.

The 2-disc deluxe set features both CD and PureAudio Blu-ray™ media with high-resolution 2.0 Stereo and 5.0 Surround versions (DSM192K/24bit), recorded in DSD and downloadable to audio servers and devices. The Blu ray™ also contains three video performances: two concert selections from the world première performance and the complete liturgical première sung at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC. The accompanying booklet provides an extensive essay by the composer, the full text of the Divine Liturgy, and beautiful photography. Cappella Records is distributed by Naxos USA.

by Mark Powell

Mark Powell is executive director of Cappella Romana and Cappella Records. He has been a professional ensemble singer and arts administrator for over 30 years, having worked both in the US and in Europe, and holds a Master’s Degree in Musicology from the University of Washington, Seattle.

While building on the traditions of sacred Russian choral music, Sheehan’s new Liturgy in English is harmonically and structurally more adventurous than those by predecessors such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. The professional singers of The Saint Tikhon Choir masterfully handle this virtuoso score with clarity of tone, purity of expression, and power in reserve.

The composition reveals its roots in the Russian tradition with the deliberate “orchestration” of the voices, especially in the doubling of high and low voices singing in octaves, common to the Moscow Synodal School. The work’s power is likewise reinforced by the presence throughout of a clearly perceptible melodic theme that unites the work organically. Sheehan also employs techniques reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s music: profoundly affecting textures built on disciplined triadic and step-wise melody.

The opening Psalms of the Liturgy’s Antiphons are set for double choir, one of high voices, and the other low, recalling the polychoral music from San Marco in Venice by Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, and Schütz. The Psalms were translated compassionately by the composer’s late father, a poet and professor of literature, to whom the work is dedicated. Unlike the Slavic style of Psalm singing at breakneck speed, Sheehan takes his time with certain verses to highlight their deeply personal implications.

Sheehan composed all of the chants in full for priest and deacon, ensuring perfect symphony with the choral responses that accompany them. Baritone Michael Hawes intones the priest’s chants with loving conviction, matched with bass Jason Thoms singing the deacon’s petitions with dignity and authority. The stellar countertenor Timothy Parsons figures prominently as soloist in the last large movement.

Like the Eucharistic services of the West, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy is divided into two sections: the first made up of Psalms and readings, and the second, the service of Holy Communion, or Eucharist. In today’s Byzantine rite, the pivot point between these sections is the Cherubic Hymn, typically a long, meditative work designed to evoke the heavenly realm into which the assembly is about to enter.

There may be no other setting of the Cherubic Hymn quite like that in Sheehan’s Liturgy. Had it been set for string orchestra, Sheehan’s could have been a symphonic Adagio by Gustav Mahler, with its slow unfolding of musical themes, cascading suspensions, imperfect cadences, and the complete avoidance of final tonal resolution or release until its close—and even then the music suggests that there is more to come.

Sheehan’s communion verse “Praise the Lord from the Heavens, Alleluia” 1) sets Psalm 148 in its entirety and 2) is effectively a vocal concerto for countertenor and double chorus, both aspects unprecedented in the Orthodox choral repertoire. Written for the virtuoso countertenor Timothy Parsons, recently a layclerk at Christ Church, Oxford (UK), it exploits the fullest range of Parsons’ powerful and authoritative voice that reaches an impressive high E at the consummation of this beautiful movement.

The ending movements following Holy Communion, expressing thanks and joy, are in the bright key of E major. Sheehan’s exuberant setting of “Blessed be the name of the Lord, henceforth and for evermore” leaves no doubt in this writer that the whole work has been a journey, a pilgrimage into a transcendent realm.

Sheehan’s music seems to transfigure the words of the Liturgy into doors to eternity for those willing to open them, setting the listener—regardless of background— on a musical and spiritual pilgrimage of discovery.

Benedict Sheehan

Composer and conductor Benedict Sheehan is described as “an up-and-coming conductor” (The Oregonian), “a rising star in the choral world” (Catholic Sentinel), and as having “set the bar for Orthodox liturgical music in the English-speaking world” (Orthodox Arts Journal). He is Director of Music at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery in Pennsylvania, Artistic Director of professional vocal ensemble The Saint Tikhon Choir, and CEO and co-founder of the Artefact Institute, a collective of “culture creators.” Sheehan has become one of the most sought-after clinicians for Orthodox sacred music in America.

He has also appeared regularly as a guest conductor with Cappella Romana, leading works from the Slavic tradition, and is in high demand as a composer. His works have been performed by the GRAMMY®- nominated Skylark Vocal Ensemble, the GRAMMY®- nominated PaTRAM Institute Singers, Cappella Romana, the William Jewell Choral Scholars, Te Deum, the Pacific Youth Choir, and many others. His “story score” to two classic fairy tales, Once Upon a Time, was released in 2020 by Skylark, and has been called “evocative” (Gramophone), “quite extraordinary” (Limelight), “brilliant” (MetroWest Daily News), and “otherworldly” (Boston Musical Intelligencer). His new carol, Gabriel’s Message, was released in 2020 by The Oxford Choir, conducted by Bob Chilcott. Sheehan’s music is published by Oxford University Press, Artefact Publications, and Musica Russica.

Saint Tikhon Choir

The Saint Tikhon Choir was founded in 2015 by its artistic director Benedict Sheehan and Abbot Sergius of St. Tikhon’s Monastery. It is the first professional vocal ensemble connected with an Orthodox monastery
in America, founded with a mission to foster and build up the American Orthodox choral tradition at the highest artistic level. Its début recording, Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan (2015), was heralded as “delicate and subtle … at other times powerful and opulent … [a] cause for joy and hope” (Orthodox Arts Journal). In 2018, The Saint Tikhon Choir took part in the world première of Alexander Kastalsky’s monumental Requiem for Fallen Brothers, written in 1917 to commemorate the dead of World War I across national borders. This concert took place at Washington’s National Cathedral, performing in collaboration with the Clarion Choir, the Kansas City Chorale, the Cathedral Choral Society, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. The project was heralded as one of the “Top Ten Performances of 2018” (Washington Classical Review) and “an unforgettable performance” (Washington Post). The world première recording of this historic project was released in August of 2020 on the Naxos label, débuting at #1 on Billboard, and hailed in early reviews as “tremendously dignified” (MusicWeb International) and “powerful” (Kansas City Star). Benedict Sheehan’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is The Saint Tikhon Choir’s third recording. On the web at sainttikhonchoir.org

Cappella Records

Cappella Records is the label operated by the vocal ensemble Cappella Romana. Founded in Portland, Oregon, in 1991, the company combines passion with scholarship in its exploration of early and contemporary music of the Christian East and West, both on its own and in collaboration with peer artists and ensembles all over the world. Its name refers to the medieval Greek concept of the Roman oikoumene (inhabited world), which embraced Rome and Western Europe as well as the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople (“New Rome”) and its Slavic commonwealth. Cappella Records has released over 25 titles, including the recent Billboard chart-topping Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia.

“Sheehan’s approach certainly harkens back to longstanding choral traditions in Russia and environs, and as such, there’s often a dark, almost foreboding, ambience to some of the massed lower sonorities he exploits. … If the underlying foundational element here is the shrouded somber aspect of the Russian soul, as Sheehan also gets into in his essay, he works in a number of other traditions, including minimalism and an American folksong feeling. The result is surprisingly homogeneous, with some really gorgeously burnished choral moments. … The music on the Blu-ray disc is varied and moving, and Sheehan (who also conducts) elicits a really commendable blend, especially in some of his close harmonies. The added bonus of being able to see the accompanying ritual on the video is a nice extra… Audio on the Blu-ray disc is top notch, and while this may in fact appeal mostly to those with an interest in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it should still be enjoyed generally by lovers of well wrought choral music, regardless of whether or not they have this, or indeed any, religious belief. Recommended.” —Jeffrey Kauffman, Blu-Ray.com

“While listening, I closed my eyes and just let the voices of the Saint Tikhon Choir bring the liturgy alive in music. … In all honesty, the voices of the choir performing Sheehan’s setting gave me chills. This is an album I’ll be listening to often. I highly recommend this album to those who enjoy liturgical music especially music that is rich in history and tradition. Let the voices of the Saint Tikhon’s Choir bring the liturgy to you especially during these difficult times.” —Joe Sales

“a recording which succeeds fully as a musical work…  is a work which commands not only attention, but respect, even if one has nothing in common with the religious teachings it imparts through song.…this album is an addition of rare grace and refinement to the living music heritage of the Eastern rites. It will delight the Orthodox and the discerning non-Orthodox music-lover equally, and, perhaps, in its own way, contribute to greater understanding in a fragmented and disjointed world.” —Linda Holt, ConcertoNet

“Almost unbearably beautiful. Nothing left empty, no fragment of attention or feeling withdrawn. Dear God, let us never forget how to make such music. … We need to remember that this music exists, and we need to remember how to make it, and we need to keep on making it. We must grasp it with both hands, and never let go.” —Melinda Johnson

“When listening to it I became wondrously aware that the magic of what Benedict Sheehan conveys so impressively with this world premiere recording, may offer to many, whether or not being an active believer, that so much needed refuge. … A document to cherish.” —Adrian Quanjer, HRAudio.net

“There is music here to touch the soul … There is that additional interior promise of hope and joy, mixed with appropriate reverence, that can also help listeners connect to the divine. … Regardless of one’s faith expression, this music on its own has the power to heal your soul and transform you from the present moment.” –Cinemusical

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