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14.12.03

Romeiko Ensemble at Saint Matthew's Cathedral

As I announced in my post on December 12, the Romeiko Ensemble gave a concert Friday night at St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington. I had forgotten how bad parking can be on a Friday or Saturday night in that part of town and unwisely went to the concert by car. Needless to say, I missed the first 20 minutes of the concert while I searched for a place to park. The group, under the direction of Dr. Yiorgos Bilalis, performed a program of historical music from Byzantine and Ottoman Greece and Turkey, called From Constantinople to Istanbul: A Sacred Journey of Byzantine and Ottoman Chant. (The concert was sponsored by the Western Policy Center.)

The first part of the program featured six substantial selections of Byzantine chant from the festal period of the Nativity of Christ, sung in Greek. I like to listen to Byzantine chant, and I think good performances of it, like that of the Romeiko Ensemble, draw on an interesting and venerable tradition. However, so much of the repertory that is performed as Byzantine is from rather late sources, which makes its usefulness from a scholarly point of view more troublesome. One of Dr. Bilalis's interests for the Romeiko Ensemble, however, is the "compositions of the post-Byzantine era (15th-19th cent.)" (this is from the concert program). That was evident in the first half of this concert, on which all but two pieces were composed in the 19th century. The only truly medieval piece that was performed that night was an 11th-century chant, the Katabasiae for Christmas, CristoV gennatai, doxasate (Christ is born, you will believe). The Romeiko Ensemble performs Byzantine chant in the traditional way, that is, with an ison, or drone, performed by five singers. The remaining 14 singers, including four women, sing the extremely florid, cantillated melody together. I was disappointed not to find any printouts of the texts in the program, either in Greek or English. (Of the over 20 pages in the program, only five pages were devoted to helpful information and not advertising.) With my basic Greek, I could glean some information from the titles, which were not translated: Iwshf eipe hmin (Joseph, tell us) or Mh stugnaze Iwshf (Don't look gloomy, Joseph) or En Bhqleem gennatai (He is born in Bethlehem).

The second half of the program began with a selection of Sufi chant called "Wedding Night." These pieces were intended to be sung in Mevlevi Dervish services. They were created by followers of Celaludin Mevlana (d. 1262) and set his poems, written in Persian, to music (although I have no idea when this music was written). Since there were no texts or tranlsations and since I know absolutely no Persian, I was completely lost. Five of the six expected Turkish instrumentalists joined the Romeiko Ensemble at this point, playing the kemenche (spike fiddle), kanun (zither), ney (flute), tanbur (fretted long-necked lute), and kudum (kettle drums). (At the intermission, when there was a great movement of people, a women in front of me joked that now all the Greeks in the audience were leaving and all the Turks were just arriving, as if they could not coexist in the audience.) Both singers and instrumentalists wore long, pointed golden caps during this part of the concert, which were, I guess, some sort of fez. The program concluded with pieces that were called "Secular Music" or "Greek Carols," including three compositions by members of the instrumental ensemble.

With few exceptions, the singing was beautiful and powerful. There were some moments in which the unity of the ensemble broke down, in a couple of very high passages especially. Those singers who sang alone did well with their solos, including one section chanted by Christina Indianos, one of the women in the ensemble. The instruments made sounds that are, I'm sure, not heard too often in St. Matthew's Cathedral. The flute-like ney and the rebec-like kemenche make peculiar sounds that instantly evoke Turkey or Persia and which have an eerily human affect in their tone that is remarkable.

Calling of Saint Matthew, mural in St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, D.C.If you have not been to the Catholic cathedral of the nation's capital, seat of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, our archbishop, Saint Matthew's is worth a visit. This small building, designed by Grant LaFarge, is now almost lost in the sea of commerce and sin of Washington's downtown. The cornerstone was put down in 1893, and the church was dedicated in 1913 but not named cathedral until 1939. It is the site of the annual Red Mass, celebrated on behalf of the legal profession, which is usually attended by all or some of the Justices of the Supreme Court and lots of other dignitaries, and it was here that President Kennedy's funeral Mass was said in 1963. (In front of the cathedral is where UPI photographer Stan Stearns took the famous picture of John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father's casket.) After all, the church's namesake is the patron saint of civil servants (tax collectors, in particular), and the archdiocese of Washington obviously serves a large number of federal employees. (Matthew was the new name of the tax collector, Levi, shown being summoned to his new ministry so dramatically in Caravaggio's famous painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew, the scene described in the Bible in Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, and Luke 5:27. This painting was done around 1600 for the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome. The same scene is shown in the unusual closeup of a mural in the cathedral to the left.)

The cathedral has been undergoing extensive renovation and restoration since 2000, and I was quite surprised to see how good it looks now. The exterior dome has been given a new copper covering, and the mosaics and other interior artwork have been thoroughly cleaned and are much better lighted now. The new organ, installed beginning in 1995, is magnificent to behold, although I have yet to hear it played. The apse decoration, which I spent a lot of time inspecting behind the Romeiko Ensemble, is dominated by American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield's large mosaic of St. Matthew, holding a book with a Latin inscription, from the seminal passage of Matthew 9:9: "Jesus saw a man sitting in the custom house named Matthew and He said to him 'Follow Me.' And he arose and followed Him." (Before there was a controversy about a sculpture representing the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, Blashfield painted a 12- by 32-foot mural, called The Law and depicting at its center the Ten Commandments, for Cleveland's old federal courthouse, now named for Howard Metzenbaum. See this article and this article by Bill Sloat in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) The four pillars of the crossing are decorated with portraits of the four evangelists and their symbols, with pre-Raphaelite angels whose bright colors (like the peacock feathers over St. Matthew in the apse and other bright-color motifs throughout the church) are now much more vivid. The one thing I hoped they might get rid of is the strange statue by Gordon S. Kray in Our Lady's Chapel, of Mary "reaching down to fallen humanity and pointing to her ascended Son," which I have heard some of the cathedral musicians jokingly refer to as Hang-Ten Mary, because her pose looks like that of a surfer.

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