The Eastern Diocese held its third “Sacred Music Festival” on Friday and Saturday, April 16-17. Conceived by the Diocese’s Sacred Music Council at the instigation of Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel, the festival was a celebration of Armenian liturgical music, featuring educational presentations and recitals.
Like its immediate predecessor, the Spring 2021 Sacred Music Festival went forward as an online gathering—this time with an international flavor—under the theme “The Holy Badarak: Our Musical Sacrament.”
The Sacred Music Council held its first festival in 2019, as a live event in Evanston, IL. A year later, under the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fall 2020 festival was held as an online event—and actually expanded its reach among the public, inspiring additional online workshops and gatherings for musicians in subsequent months. The Spring 2021 festival brought together some 70 online participants.
“Naturally, the circumstances forced us to move to a virtual celebration of the festival last fall,” explained Fr. Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan, pastor of the St. James of Nisibis Church of Evanston IL, chairman of the Sacred Music Council, and a deeply learned professional musician in his own right. “While we are missing the physical presence of each other and musical fellowship, the online format has allowed us to bring together people from all the parts of the United States and Europe.”
“It’s been a successful experiment,” he added, “and we plan to continue offering online events in the future even after the current crisis has passed.”
A Sublime, Celestial Art
Following a Friday evening vespers service, Bishop Daniel opened the festival with a welcome to the participants, before turning the program over to a special guest presentation.
That presentation, broadcast live from Europe, was a lecture-recital by the internationally-known conductor, musician, and scholar Dr. Haig Utidjian, titled “The Celestial Melodies of the Divine Liturgy.” Dr. Utidjian, who is also an ordained deacon, illuminated the rich history of Armenian sacred music, revealing the origin and evolution of its melodies, hymns, and chants.
The lecture expertly wove together examples of hymns written by our church fathers, ranging from 12th-century figures like Khachadoor of Daron and St. Nersess Shnorhali, to such 19th and 20th-century eminences as Pietro Bianchini, Komitas Vartabed, and Amy Apcar. Dn. Haig offered soulful renditions of these lesser-known melodies, granting listeners a new perspective on the vast anthology of the Armenian sacred music tradition—no less than an appreciation for the scholarship required to interpret the cryptic neumesin which such melodies were recorded.
Dr. Utidjian’s personal anecdotes from his work as an historian—seeking ancient manuscripts in the Mkhitarist libraries of San Lazarro and Venice, and gaining knowledge from great peers such as Archbishop Zareh Aznavourian or Krikor Pidejian—coupled with his experiences training non-Armenian choirs in Prague and Copenhagen, added a level of detail that raised the discourse from a dry academic exercise to an inspired, living journey.
“Remember that it has taken more than a thousand years to bring us to where we are,” said Dr. Utidjian by way of conclusion, “so let us cherish our sacred music tradition. The rules of this art have the power to render our chants sublime, celestial, and pleasing to both our ears and our hearts.”
Living the Experience of Joy
Saturday began with a morning service and Bishop Daniel’s keynote presentation on the festival theme: “The Holy Badarak: Our Musical Sacrament.”
Bishop Daniel’s talk emphasized the profundity of Armenian sacred music, and how its theological implications should guide our rendition of this glorious music. Srpazan emphasized the Badarak is not a performance; rather it is a mysterious “sacrament” in which we offer a love song to our Creator. Badarak was explained to be a transcendental experience in which the congregation draws together in unison and in communion with God—into Whose midst we enter.
Armenian sacred music in the church is the Armenian peoples’ age-old love song to God. The faithful sing love songs to our Savior every Sunday. Within the “family” of worshippers, related by faith and not merely genetics, the love song evolves and develops.
After expounding upon the profound nature of our sacred music and liturgical sacraments, Bishop Daniel proceeded to explain how this should influence the way choirs approach their singing. That singing should be a reflection of joy, he said, and should inspire joy in the congregation. Singing should be joyful and upbeat, and should be prayed, not performed. Organists should serve as a subtle aid in the background, barely perceptible.
“The Badarak is absolutely filled with joy,” the Bishop concluded. “It is an experience of joy: to celebrate and realize our union with God; to celebrate that fact every time we enter our church. If our churches our empty, it is because we as a church do not exude joy.”
“Why?” he asked. “Because we have not captured that joy ourselves. We have not realized the joy that is in our hands. We as musicians have a big part in that: a responsibility and opportunity to bring the joy of the Gospel to our people.”
In the afternoon sessions that followed, expert practitioners of the liturgical art shared their wisdom—their “musical pearls”—with the listeners.
Fr. Arshen Aivazian spoke about the melodies and odes—megheti, in Armenian—that are sung in specific celebrations of the badarak. Examples were illustrated through the vocal gifts of Fr. Voskan Hovhannisyan.
Der Avedis Kalayjian expounded on Midday Hymns (jashoo sharagan) and their biblical references, with vocalist Edita Dolunts-Kalayjian bringing the hymns to vivid life.
Finally, Dn. Rubik Mailian gave a riveting talk on the diverse settings of the Badarak written by various composers, and he encouraged choirs to incorporate unfamiliar versions into the traditional setting of Sunday worship. Judicious variety of musical expression, Dn. Rubik asserted, would give a new, vivid power to the ancient prayers, arresting the attention of worshippers, and allowing them to experience the words in a fresh way.
Geeragamdeets vespers (“Entering the Lord’s Day”) concluded the virtual celebration of Armenian Church music and musicians. In addition, three worship services were conducted in three parishes of the Diocese: St. James of Nisibis in Evanston IL; St. Sarkis in Dallas, TX; and St. Stepanos in Elberon, NJ.
“As always, hearing Srpazan Daniel speak was enlightening,” said particpant Raffi Bandazian, of St. James Church in Richmond, VA. “I learn something new every time. The lecture about sharagan, tagh, and megheti enhanced my understanding of the Sourp Badarak and gave me a deeper appreciation of the service and my participation in this Holy Sacrament.
“The Sacred Music Festival was a great experience. The introduction to the many different renderings of the badarak, and the stories behind them, was eye-opening,” said Dn. Mark Krikorian, of St. Mary Church in Washington, DC. “Apart from the music itself, I especially appreciated the emphasis on choir members and altar servers learning the meaning of the words they’re singing.”
Dn. Ari Terjanian, who directs the choir at St. Gregory of Narek Church in Cleveland, OH, called the festival “truly inspiring and informative for myself and our choir members. Dn. Haig’s lecture showed me how vast and rich our sacred music tradition is, and brought to light numerous melodies I had never heard before. Srpazan’s talk was extremely helpful in demonstrating how miraculous and transformative the Badarakis—and how this should guide our singing. Both experienced and new members of our choir found the talks extremely informative and inspiring.”
Click the links below to watch the recorded presentations of the Sacred Music Festival:
WATCH: “Joyful Praise,” with Fr. Arshen Ayvazian & Fr. Voskan Hovhannisyan.
WATCH: “Each Word is an Invitation,” with Fr. Avedis Kalayjian & Edita Dolunts-Kalayjian.
WATCH: “Sing a New Song Unto the Lord,” with Dn. Rubik Mailian.
Click here to view screenshots of the spring Sacred Music Festival.