3 January 2013 • On and Off Campus • Svots.edu Interview
In 1962, the first St. Vladimir's Seminary Octet visited some 100 parishes throughout the United States, beginning in Philadelphia and traveling as far west as Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The following summer a second Octet journeyed to the west coast, and a third Octet went out the next summer as well. Eventually, the traditional Octet tour took place every two years; in between, the eight–member all–male choir visited parishes within driving distance to present concerts and serve as goodwill ambassadors for the Seminary.
Recalls Dr. David Drillock, professor of Liturgical Music, Emeritus, the Octets also helped promote "liturgical music—in English, and done well, in a style conducive to worship. Each Octet also transported materials—books, records, icons—that were little known to thousands of Orthodox and non-Orthodox who attended the services and concerts given at local churches."
Recently, Svots.edu discussed this year's group with Octet Director Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak), lecturer in Liturgical Music and Chapel Choir Director at SVOTS. Two of this past year's Octet members, Seminarians Harrison Russin and Ian Abodeely, joined the conversation as well.
How is the Octet chosen?
The eight–member all male Octet is a decades–old institution at SVOTS that for many years went on summer–long cross-country trips, visiting around a hundred parishes over three months, singing services and concerts, and engaging in recruitment activities. While St. Vladimir's also has a special mixed choir (the SVS Chorale, which presented the Orient concert last year), there is a special place in Orthodox seminaries for male choirs. Most of the students at SVOTS are men who come to prepare themselves for the priesthood. There is a special form of brotherly bonding that occurs in a male choir, and this is a very valuable quality for future priests to have experienced.
The members of the Octet are chosen by myself in consultation with Dr. Nicholas Reeves, based on the voice evaluations that occur at the beginning of each school year for incoming students. Most students who are invited to join in their first year remain in the Octet for their subsequent years of study.
I think it's interesting to note how the Octet has changed, especially in the past few years as the majority of students coming to seminary are married, but I think our musical caliber is as high as ever.
Is there a bond between your musicians, and what other musical talents do they have?
I believe there is an important role for all male singing in our society. I am sure this is true for all-female choirs, but naturally I have no experience of that. It is important for men to be with each other as a team, and to make something beautiful together. I believe this is very psychologically healthy, though unfortunately somewhat devalued in our age of sexual egalitarianism. Making music together does indeed create a bond, and it is also especially gratifying to watch as the more experienced musicians assist those to whom the technical side of music-making may come less readily.
Our Octet in fact has several instrumentalists, including a pianist, a cellist, a couple guitarists, an accordianist, a drummer, a pianist, and no fewer than three organists!
There is definitely a bond between the musicians in the Octet. Being in the Octet itself is a bonding experience, not only as singers but also as brother seminarians. Some of us are fresh out of college, others are on our second careers; some some married, some single; and we're all from different places in the country, or even the world. What brings us together is the music of the Church. I'm an organist, as is Gregory Tucker and Fr. Herman, so there was a natural bond between us from the beginning. But the quickly formed bond between all of us that has continued to grow stronger over our first semester together. The level of musicianship of the singers led to us "clicking" almost immediately and has allowed us to make some really beautiful music together as an ensemble.
We're all different in many ways—geography, religious upbringing, education, musical exposure and tastes, senses of humor. But I look forward to Octet trips because it's a time to "be us," be something we are not alone—the sum is greater than the parts!
How do you decide which music to perform?
Our repertoire has changed over the past few years, in large part based on the voices and musical capabilities of those singing in the Octet. In my first two years as its director, we focused more on two–part and some three–part arrangements of Byzantine, Znamenny, Georgian, and Kievan Chant. In the past year, while retaining some of this repertoire, we have also become more at home with full four–part male choir arrangements of Russian chant, requiring a larger voice range. This repertoire is in fact the traditional fare of the Octet going back decades.
While all the music the Octet sings is liturgical music, and while our primary role is as a liturgical choir during divine services, I have not found it difficult or problematic to perform this music in concert venues. We encourage people to withhold applause until the end of the entire concert, so as to emphasize the prayerfulness of the music. Also sometimes I will give brief introductions to the music being sung, or the subject matter of the text, especially in situations where the audience may be largely non-Orthodox. In this regard, I view it as something of a missionary activity.
The response of the listeners is all over the map. I am often surprised by which pieces can get the most favorable attention and which pieces no one comments about. Thankfully, I've never received negative comments.
In my short time in the Octet, I've found that those listening to us really respond to the "classics" of Russian Orthodox Church music, that is, Rachmaninov, Bortniansky, Chesnokov, et cetera. But they also have responded to new pieces, such as the recently composed setting of "Blessed is the Man," by our own Dr. Nicholas Reeves. For myself, singing Rachmaninov's famous setting of "Bogoroditse Dyevo" was one of the highlights of this semester.
Somehow, I find that even when we're singing outside of a liturgical context, the music is still prayerful. I believe that this is simply a case of bringing Christ "to the world," as well as stopping the tendency to "compartmentalize" our faith from our daily life. Simply put, singing liturgical music outside of a liturgical context can be a powerful witness to those around us and help them start asking questions about Orthodoxy, whether they are "cradle" or "convert."
To speak to this, during our trip to Villanova University the clergy and choirs processed relics and a miraculous icon through the campus to and from the icon exhibit, singing as we went. While I'm sure some of the college students who stopped to look were perhaps wondering, "who are these strange men in black robes wandering around and singing," there were also those that started following us, too. Maybe, in some small way, our singing can help lead people to learn more about Christ as found in Orthodoxy.
How many concerts do you perform, and where do you travel?
We mostly sing services, not concerts. Because of the heavy demands placed upon our students' time, we limit ourselves to three Octet trips each semester --- generally Sunday morning services and perhaps a concert in the afternoon. Occasionally we will plan an overnight trip and sing Vespers on Saturday evening as well. In addition, the Octet sings occasionally in Three Hierarchs' Chapel here on campus, on special occasions such as Orthodox Education Day, and the visit of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon and His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan to the seminary.
These experiences have been encouraging, even leading our Chancellor, Fr. Chad Hatfield, to suggest we record a CD! Who knows if we actually will, but I look forward to working with my brother seminarians and with Fr. Herman to provide the best liturgical music possible wherever and whenever we are called to serve.
Order Octet CDs from SVS Press: