In an evening that was both festive and intimate, the choirs of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in East Meadow combined with the St. Vladimir Seminary Chorale on Dec. 8 for an evening of traditional Orthodox and Western Christmas classics.
The free concert was jointly directed by Holy Trinity’s Dr. Nicholas Reeves; Matushka Robin Freeman, conductor of the St. Vladimir ensemble and director of music at the seminary; and Danielle MIller, conductor of Holy Trinity’s youth choir. It was organized through the auspices of the church’s rector, the Rev. Martin Kraus; seminary president, the Rev. Chad Hatfield; Ancient Faith Radio’s John Maddox; and Reeves.
Billed as “Nine Carols and Lessons,” musical selections alternated with seasonal readings from the Bible and Christmas carols that the audience could join in singing. The event was streamed live via Ancient Faith, an international Orthodox broadcasting ministry.
It was the first time the choirs had appeared together. “Dr. Nicholas Reeves, our conductor, approached me last year with the idea. I immediately gave him my blessing to see what it would entail,” Kraus said. In addition to his musical duties at the church, Reeves is an experienced impresario, as well as adjunct professor of music at Adelphi University. Reeves, who was formerly on the seminary faculty, went to Hatfield, who reached out to Maddox in turn. The result was an evening of virtuoso choral singing not often heard in churches.
“The idea for this kind of concert goes back to a tradition begun in Cambridge in 1918,” Reeves said. “We wanted to adapt this to an Orthodox setting.” According to Reeves, the practice of congregational involvement helps give such events a more liturgical feeling and less that of a show. And “the scriptures are read by everyone — clergy, readers, laypeople and even children,” he said.
The concert opened with a candlelit procession accompanied by an a cappella rendition of the traditional Orthodox chant, “Mary Once With Aged Joseph,” in a gentle arrangement by Robert Sirico. After greetings from Kraus and a reading from Genesis, the choir offered John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder as I Wander,” featuring a moving soprano solo by Alessandra Hartenstein. The evening’s other soloists included tenor Phillip Ritchey, who sang the solo part in an arrangement of the Kievan chant, “What Shall We Call Thee”; and Zachariah Mandell, whose rhythmic baritone provided the verses for the Renaissance composer Mateo Flecha el Viejo’s “Riù Riù Chiu.”
“Getting the right balance between a performance and a religious offering isn’t easy,” Freeman said. “As musicians, we always strive to be the best we can be with the resources we have. It’s a good analogy for our lives as Christians. There, too, we try to be the best we can be,” she said.
Although the music was familiar to Kraus, he said he was deeply stirred by the singing. He especially appreciated hearing Rachmaninov’s setting of the Marian Antiphon, “Rejoice O Virgin,” sung in the original Church Slavonic, he said.
The 40-voice choir sang to an audience of more than 150 that included a surprise appearance by His Eminence Archbishop Michael Dahulich, of the Orthodox Church in America’s diocese of New York and New Jersey.