Benedict Sheehan: Vespers

BENEDICT SHEEHAN: VESPERS (2021)

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About the Album

Cappella Records is pleased to announce the November 19, 2021, release of Benedict Sheehan’s Vespers, an Orthodox Vespers performed in English by the GRAMMY®- nominated Saint Tikhon Choir, conducted by the composer.

Inspired by Rachmaninoff ’s All-Night Vigil, Sheehan’s unique musical and linguistic expression expands the genre. He adorns full-length Psalms and hymns with a deep understanding of beauty, faith, and humanity.

Vespers also features virtuosic vocal concertos, including the first for basso profundo in English. Engage with this music that projects a vision of hope and light for all.

Sheehan’s Vespers is the third 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 earned more than 100 GRAMMY® nominations and awards, with releases on every major classical label.

This is the second release of The Saint Tikhon Choir on Cappella Records. The Choir recently recorded Benedict Sheehan’s critically acclaimed Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, which debuted at #2 on Billboard and #1 on Amazon.

They also recently recorded a collaboration on Naxos with three other choirs and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Leonard Slatkin, for which they received a GRAMMY® nomination.

The Vespers recording features a Hybrid SACD in 2.0 stereo and 5.0 surround sound (DSM192K/24bit), recorded in DSD and downloadable to audio servers and devices.

The accompanying booklet provides an extensive essay by the composer, the full texts used in the composition, composer notes, and beautiful photography. Cappella Records is distributed by Naxos USA.

by Mark Powell, Executive Director, Cappella Records; Lydia Given, General Manager, The Saint Tikhon Choir; and Richard Barrett, The Saint John of Damascus Society.

Vespers, Benedict Sheehan’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Sheehan continues to make inspired contributions to the body of American choral repertoire. Drawing deeply from Greek and Russian Orthodox chant traditions, he creates a cohesive individual voice for Vespers that is both traditional and modern.

Here Sheehan employs Slavic, Byzantine, and newly composed chant melodies in orchestrated choral textures. As in his earlier Liturgy, listeners can hear in Sheehan’s Vespers “vocal orchestration” similar to that of Rachmaninoff and other Russian masters: the doubling of high and low voices; soloists and semi-choruses accompanied by full chorus, like solo instruments in a concerto; colorful Romantic harmonies; and nods to Baroque counterpoint.

Careful listening will reveal Sheehan’s use of chiasmus as a structural element throughout. Chiastic structure (e.g. A-B-C-D-C’-B’-A’) marks a center point, in this case the movement “Gladsome Light,” with others organized symmetrically around it. Bach’s motet “Komm, Jesu, Komm” may be the best known choral work to use this form, while later composers, including Brahms and Stravinsky, likewise employ this kind of formal organization. Sheehan uses chiasmus within individual movements as well, both in terms of text and music. One can hear this particularly in the Psalms.

Sheehan utilizes asymmetrical meters; think of “Take 5” by David Brubeck, or “Aliens” by Coldplay, or the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, all in 5/4 with shifting strong and weak beats within the pattern. However, Vespers takes this a step further by not settling into one asymmetrical meter for too long. Instead, the music throughout follows the jagged prosody of medieval Slavic and Byzantine chant melodies that, in turn, are driven by the asymmetrical patterns of strong and weak syllables in the poetry.

The Opening Psalm. While Slavs tend to sing an abbreviated Psalm 103 lxx (104), Greeks simply read the whole text. Here Sheehan sets the whole to music in an expansive form unknown to common Slavic use. Its exposition on the creation narrative is also chiastic in structure. Baritone and countertenor soloists alternate with the chorus as a conversation between God and the created order. The hushed Alleluias, which could have been more ebullient, prefigure the gentle glow of the central movement, “Gladsome Light.”

Blessed is the Man. Here a male-voice trio sings the verses with full-choir refrain “Alleluia.” Then a countertenor in a higher register enters at “Arise O Lord,” a subtle word-painting device, continuing at the final, most important verse of the psalm “Salvation is from the Lord…”. The whole choir sings the Small Doxology (“Glory to the Father…”) with its final antiphonal refrains.

The Lamp-Lighting Psalms. Building on Byzantine motifs rather than complete chants, the Lamp-Lighting Psalms follow the Slavic practice of syllabic settings (roughly one note per syllable) for all the verses. This is in contrast to the received Byzantine tradition, in which the first two verses are set to melismatic melodies (many notes per syllable), with the remainder syllabic. Sheehan marries modern Slavic practice (using the ancient refrain “Hear me, O Lord”) with the Byzantine practice of all verses through-composed. In common Orthodox practice (both Greek and Slavic), the interior verses are omitted, while Sheehan’s setting may be the first to set these complete for polyphonic choir.

Those familiar with the Byzantine melodic formulas will hear patterns from the First mode (specific melodic patterns and cadential figures in approximately D minor, with modulations to G minor and back). The utilization of pedal tones (isons, or drones), characteristic of modern Byzantine chant practice, can also be heard throughout. This movement builds on the practice of harmonies in thirds that became popular for a while in liturgical music championed by the composer/cantor John Sakellarides in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Greece. The composer takes this a step further with fists of parallel closely-voiced chords in the style of John Tavener. Some soloists employ ornamentation in their lines, appropriate to received Byzantine chant, comparable to the essential ornamentation applied to Baroque music.

Stikhira of the Resurrection. Between the final verses of the Lamp-Lighting Psalms, a series of tropes (troparia, or proper hymns) make explicit the connection between the light of the Psalms and the light of the risen Christ. For a Saturday Vespers in anticipation of Sunday, always a day of Resurrection or a feast of Jesus Christ, these tropes point to what follows, Gladsome Light, the center of Vespers.

The final doxastikon or dogmatikon (the trope that follows “Glory to the Father…”), is a verse to the Virgin Mary. While common Slavic practice usually makes little stylistic distinction between the former tropes and the final one, this is set in a more expansive style with a grand ending, not unlikThis collection is reminiscent of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s through-composed troparia in memory of St. John the Baptist in his Finnish Vigilia (All-Night Vigil), with basso profundo and high tenor soloists accompanied by atmospheric choral textures. One can also compare them to Sir John Tavener’s through-composed troparia in his rarely-performed Orthodox Vigil Service in English. Like the Rautavaara, there is no strict role for soloists and choir; traditional Byzantine practice assigns psalm verses to a soloist and the tropes to the choir. Like the Rautavaara setting, Sheehan’s musical ambiguity between the psalm verses and their tropes creates a cohesive stream of expression. The psalm verses and their tropes are sometimes sung by choir, by soloists, or in combination to accentuate the poetic imagery.

The final doxastikon or dogmatikon (the trope that follows “Glory to the Father…”), is a short poem to the Virgin Mary. While common Slavic practice usually makes little stylistic distinction between the former tropes and the final one, this is set in a more expansive style with a grand ending, not unlike traditional Byzantine settings, which emphasize musically the Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God.

Gladsome Light. This is the central movement of Vespers, with the outer movements in symmetry with it. While incorporating fragments of Byzantine melodies, this movement is a full polyphonic setting, more thickly scored than a melody against drones or held chords. Its restraint ties with the Moscow School of Russian choral writing (e.g. Rachmaninoff, Kastalsky, Gretchaninoff), in that even in its most powerful moments there is energy in reserve, inclining the listener to perceive the sublime. In this way the theme of light is made gentle, not severe. In fact, the Slavonic
term for “gladsome” could be rendered “gentle,” whereas in Greek it is closer to “joyful,” and Sheehan’s setting undulates musically between the two. The eternal light of Christ is musically communicated as comfort and warmth.

Prokeimenon (The Lord is King). Comparable to a Latin Gradual, a prokeimenon is sung before a reading, set here in quasi-Baroque style. This is reminiscent of earlier experiments in Russian Orthodox choral music by Baroque composers Diletsky (c.1630 – c.1680) or Titov (c.1650 – c.1715). Employing a countertenor soloist also tips a hat towards Western European Baroque idioms. Brahms also comes to mind as an inspiration, who infused Baroque counterpoint with romantic harmonies.

Vouchsafe, O Lord. This movement invites comparisons with common Obikhod chant (affectionately called “typewriter chant” by insiders), here with more adventurous harmonies. The Obikhod’s unmetered musical notation leaves the exact rhythm of the words up to unwritten convention. This is the case both in the pointed psalms of Anglican chant and in the pointed hymnography in the Slavic style. In contrast, Sheehan has prescribed the precise speech rhythms in order to allow non-Slavic choirs to sing in a style normally learned by ear and experience.

Song of Simeon. This movement calls for a virtuoso male chorus (including countertenors) and the rarest of basso profundo soloists. The wholly remarkable basso profundo soloist Glenn Miller, to whom the work is dedicated, is required to sing a sustained F1, an octave below low bass F. As this movement is virtually unperformable except by the rarest basso profundo, the published score also provides a transposed version for mixed chorus and “ordinary” bass soloist. The movement also ties with the particularly Slavic tradition of the choral concerto. These are intended to show off the technical prowess of a soloist and a choir at high moments in the services. This is the only such concerto in the repertoire for basso profundo in English.

Rejoice, O Virgin. Known as the Ave Maria in the West, its text draws from the Gospel of Luke when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Its Orthodox version features a number of standard textual changes: the title Virgin Theotokos (God-bearer) at the beginning “Rejoice [Hail], O Virgin Theotokos, Mary full of grace…” and a concluding phrase. Sheehan orchestrates solo melodies between voice parts accompanied by rich choral refrains that undulate in ambiguous keys. He delays harmonic resolution, finding a “home” at C major, only appearing in a strong cadence at the close. There a baritone solo, doubled by the altos singing high in their range, emerges in the concluding phrase “for thou hast borne the Savior of our souls:” the voice of the gender-neutral Angel Gabriel proclaiming the consequence of the Incarnation.

The Closing Psalm. Adhering to the work’s chiastic form, the Closing Psalm recalls the Opening Psalm. Sheehan revisits and reinvents the very first motif of the work, transporting the listener back to the creation narrative, now transfigured by the service’s Christian narrative. This final movement is a vocal concerto for mezzo-soprano and tenor duet, which in this performance is sung by the married couple Helen Karloski and Paul D’Arcy. Like a double concerto for instruments, the solos are passed back and forth between the vocal soloists interspersed with ripieno sections by the chorus. The final passage builds upon the themes and energy of previous movements as the choir exultantly sings “Glory to thee, O God!”

Reviews

“With abundant creativity and a deep understanding of the Orthodox tradition, Sheehan has composed another masterpiece in Vespers, once again engaging the talents of the Saint Tikhon Choir… While this is indisputably religious music in every positive sense of the term, I cannot emphasize enough that Vespers is music of transcendent quality which, like religious music from di Lasso to Pärt, nourishes the music-loving portion of the soul whether one is a church-goer or not. Leading the choir he founded in a work he composed, Sheehan is a sculptor molding the high-level resources at his disposal to present us with a moving experience of musical art. … Sheehan’s rendering of the Vespers dips deeply into the rich traditions of Psalm chant and recitation, as the incomparable singers of this ensemble weave Biblical stanzas with other liturgical phrases to create a tapestry of sound that is nothing short of transcendent. An assertive, but kind-hearted rhythmic drive propels this work from start to finish, giving it a glorious energy. …this music is warm and, though different from what Westerners may be used to, has that unexplainable familiarity that binds people to beauty no matter what its source. Perhaps the most moving section in this setting is the Evening Prayer, Vouchsafe, O Lord, with elements of Russian common chant. To my ear, it also resembles Anglican chant, but with a contemporary touch, what Sheehan in the booklet notes calls “a distinctly American character”. This section is followed by two totally different musical sensations: some of the lowest vocal bass notes you’ll ever hear (extraordinary basso Glenn Miller in Song of Simeon) and Rejoice, O Virgin, based on a little-known chant of the monastery of St. Cyril, which Sheehan points out may be the only choral setting of this chant in existence. … As a lover of choral music, I am often grateful to be alive at a time in history peopled by so many outstanding composers of sacred music for voice. Many listeners revere Pärt as a Bach for our time, while others prefer the smooth articulations of Rutter or the complex introspection of Tavener. It is not too early to add Benedict Sheehan to any list of choral composers and conductors to watch in the 21st century. There seems to be no limit to his melodic and harmonic inventiveness and his ability to use music as a medium for expressing spirituality or, if you prefer, strong emotional feelings grounded in intelligence and tradition.” —Linda Holt, ConcertoNet

“this is a marvelous, gorgeously rendered and profoundly personal expression of deep faith…  I find this music glowing, inspiring and capable of great emotion and exultation, and one listens with rapt attention to its many marvels. It truly brings a fresh and new sensitivity to a very old and revered tradition, maintaining the deepest respect while adding something important and exciting to its modern evolution. Sheehan has the advantage of his wonderful St. Tikhon Choir, resident at the oldest Orthodox monastery in the United States in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. They are well-drilled and fluidly adept to the technical difficulties involved, with firm, smooth and well-balanced singing from top to bottom. The recording, done in splendidly resonant surround sound at St. Stephen’s pro-Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, is a testament to the Soundmirror engineers, a model of how this type of music should be captured. Highest recommendation.” —Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition

“In the field of Orthodox church music, Benedict Sheehan is not only a widely acclaimed conductor, with this new release he proves, and not for the first time, that he is also a highly competent composer. …The soloists are entirely drawn from the members of [The Saint Tikhon Choir] but do – in their own right – belong to some of the best solo singers America has on offer, including the unique American Basso Profundo, Glenn Miller. The opening Psalm immediately sets the tone in all its meanings. A wonderful combination of male and female voices, rich and beautifully shaped, is the ideal background over which the baritone of the lead singer Michael Hawes and fine countertenor of Timothy Parsons seems to be hovering. In the following parts, I searched, for the sake of honest reviewing, for weak moments. I couldn’t find any, other than that the variety of Sheehan’s Vespers, might give different listeners different moments of appreciation. … this is choral singing at its most exquisite. The bottom line is that Benedict Sheehan has in all evidence succeeded in creating once more a fresh and vibrant view to Eastern Orthodox chant in all its glowing colours. … Finally, there shouldn’t be the slightest doubt about the missing link to perfection: The quality of the recording. Cappella Records has put all their faith in Soundmirror and producer Blanton Alspaugh, with Brandon Johnson and John Newton engineering and Mark Donahue doing the mixing and the mastering. …Needless to say that Sheehan and Company made my (Sun)day.” —Adrian Quanjer, HRAudio (5 Stars)

“Benedict Sheehan has been active as both a conductor and a composer, working in the growing tradition of Orthodox music in the U.S. With this release, he brings his two enterprises together with marvelous results. His Vespers setting, like others, mixes intonation-like movements (with beautiful little inflections) with larger psalms and other pieces. As a composer, Sheehan has built a unique style, unmistakably drawing on the Orthodox tradition but including influences from folk music, 20th-century music (notably Stravinsky’s choral music), and more. The Vespers are an excellent example for anyone wishing to investigate his growing renown. … There is a synergy between Sheehan and the singers of the kind that often comes with a sense of shared mission, and best of all is the sound from the Cappella Romana label… rich, clear, and multi-layered.” —James Manheim, AllMusic (4.5 Stars)

“I am listening to something nicely turned and somewhat unexpected. That is Eastern Orthodox a cappella music for Vespers sung quite nicely by the Saint Tikhon Choir. … Eastern Orthodox chant elements are adapted to a melodic-harmonic later day earful. It is in the tradition and nice to hear. If you like Eastern Orthodox liturgical vocals you will find this a nice addition. Or even if you do not! Recommended.” —Grego Applegate Edwards, Classical–Modern Music

“Sheehan’s Vespers is a beautiful work performed here by committed choristers bringing a sense of religious adoration that transports the listener.” —Cinemusical

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