The Orthodox Music Masterclass that took place in Chicago in late June, 2019 was both joyful and historic. Thirty-five participants–composers and conductors–came together for four days to work on their skills and to celebrate newly-composed choral music for worship. The experience highlighted a simple fact: the human psyche is more inclined, when given the chance, to simply celebrate and enjoy music–to produce and understand it–than to judge it for its appropriateness or characterize it as good or bad or familiar–“traditional” or unfamiliar–“progressive” or “prayerful” or not, and place upon it layers of judgement that have been laid upon us. The joy came from hearing new music and taking it in without preconceptions or, perhaps, with preconceptions that became irrelevant. It was also historic because it may very well have been the first time Orthodox composers and conductors came together in North America in a workshop setting, under the mentorship of master-teachers, and with a dedication to work exclusively with newly or recently composed church music. So, riding on the joy and gratification of this past masterclass, we are continuing the journey with Orthodox Music Masterclass 2020 for Composers and Conductors.
Contemporary music was never a genre or a distinct category of music. From the rise of composers in the Middle Ages–musicians who signed their names on their works of art–through the 19th Century, music was always “contemporary.” One of the most noted instances of hindsight was Felix Mendessohn’s “discovery” of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. From that somewhat arbitrary juncture, the percentage of music from the past seems to have exponentially increased. If, in past centuries, contemporary music was the only music performed (there was limited knowledge of the past), by the time we reached the middle of the 20th Century, music of the past occupied at least 50% of the repertoire (more like–75%). In current practice, specifically in Orthodox church settings, this paradigm was almost totally reversed; we now sing and perform mostly music of dead composers, great composers to be sure, but the performance of living composers and their music is now the anomaly. In our masterclass, we aspire to reverse this reversal and reestablish the norm. So, we are making history by doing what comes naturally to the human being–we are placing the creative aspect of music-making front-and-center.
But celebrating creativity and new music is not unprecedented from a historical perspective. If we notice the bursts of creativity in past centuries, we cannot ignore the presence and role of outstanding choirs and the blossoming of the choral idiom around them. The Moscow Synodal Choir, formed at the end of the 19th Century, prompted dozens of choral composers to devote their creative energies to works for the Church. Composers flocked around the Moscow Synodal Choir to hear their own compositions and the compositions of their colleagues. A similar “composers’ Mecca” formed around Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Choir in the middle of the 20th Century. These are the more recent examples of synergetic relationships between performers and composers, but they are preceded by 500 years of European history and the phenomenon of the Kapellmeister–the church composer and leader whose church choir and orchestra produced “new” music (sometimes functional and sometimes much more than that) on a weekly basis. So, this paradigm of a religious institution, performing ensemble and music persona(s) and functioning as a synergetic entity is one that we are endeavoring to bring to life in our masterclass.
Having presented the rationale for our masterclass, I would like, also, to make an important point about its inclusive nature. The profound content of Orthodox hymnography makes our musical journey grounded in purpose. This masterclass is centered around Orthodox music and many of its participants are practicing Orthodox Christians, but we do not presume to legislate religiosity or personal faith. Orthodox music is not exclusively for Orthodox musicians, it’s content, beauty, and spiritual depth is for the world at large to discover and live. So, everyone is welcome!
Dr. Peter Jermihov