Benedict Sheehan: The Opening Psalm [6, 3] – Great Litany  – Blessed is the Man [4, 6] – Small Litany  – The Lamp-Lighting Psalms  – Stikhira of the Resurrection [4, 2, 5] – O Gladsome Light  – The Lord is King  – Evening Prayer (“Vouchsafe, O Lord”) – Song of Simeon  – Interlude: The Trisagion Prayers [6, 7] – Rejoice, O Virgin  – The Closing Psalm [4, 2]
Fotina Naumenko  (soprano), Helen Karloski  (mezzo-soprano), Timothy Parsons  (countertenor), Paul D’Arcy  (tenor), Jamal Sarikoki , Michael Hawes  (baritones), Jason Thoms  (bass), Glenn Miller  (basso profundo), The Saint Tikhon Choir, Talia Sheehan, Zoe Turton (chorus masters), Benedict Sheehan (conductor)
Recording: St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (July 7-9, 2021) – 59’29
Cappella Records CR423 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English (World Premiere Recording)
It’s not every day that new liturgical music, composed by an American for the Christian Orthodox church, makes waves in the global classical music community. But that is just what happened a little over a year ago when composer and conductor Benedict Sheehan’s album, Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, captured the attention and won the hearts of music-lovers around the world. The album, featuring the Grammy-nominated © Saint Tikhon Choir under Sheehan’s direction, has awakened an interest in Orthodox music in the West not seen since Rachmaninoff’s two major religious works for the Russian church that premiered early in the last century.
With abundant creativity and a deep understanding of the Orthodox tradition, Sheehan has composed another masterpiece in Vespers, once again engaging the talents of the Saint Tikhon Choir, the first professional choir to be associated with an American Orthodox monastery (located in South Canaan, Pennsylvania). While this is indisputably religious music in every positive sense of the term, I cannot emphasize enough that Vespers is music of transcendent quality which, like religious music from di Lasso to Pärt, nourishes the music-loving portion of the soul whether one is a church-goer or not. Leading the choir he founded in a work he composed, Sheehan is a sculptor molding the high-level resources at his disposal to present us with a moving experience of musical art.
Vespers is the evening service of the Daily Office celebrated in the more liturgical branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal and some others). While one doesn’t need to be part of a faith tradition to appreciate the musical setting, knowledge of the Psalms (a body of spiritual poetry shared by the Abrahamic religions) can be helpful in listening to this a cappella performance. Sheehan’s rendering of the Vespers dips deeply into the rich traditions of Psalm chant and recitation, as the incomparable singers of this ensemble weave Biblical stanzas with other liturgical phrases to create a tapestry of sound that is nothing short of transcendent.
An assertive, but kind-hearted rhythmic drive propels this work from start to finish, giving it a glorious energy. The work never lags, and even its slower, more reflective sections demand our eager attention. The work unfolds over 13 tracks, a little under an hour in length. During this time, Sheehan positions soloists against and in harmony with more than a dozen soloists, creating panoramas of musical intensity. Beautiful chordal progressions are punctuated by shimmering vocal effects, some achieved through delicate dissonance as well as the modal ornaments we associate with Eastern music.
The work opens with Psalm 103 (104 KJV), “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” featuring the sonorous baritone voice of Michael Hawes, bell-like tones of countertenor Timothy Parsons and an outstanding chorus. This and other Psalm texts in this edition are in a translation of the Septuagint Greek by the composer’s father, Donald Sheehan. The work ends with Psalm 33 (34 KJV), “I will bless the Lord at all times,” featuring the shining voices of Helen Karloski, mezzo-soprano and Paul D’Arcy, tenor, in step with the choir’s introduction of a more folkloric, American melodic appeal. It is as though the final minutes of this work do not sum up and conclude, but rather open a door to new horizons still rooted in the Orthodox passion for beauty and truth.
Throughout the album, the elegant English-language text flows naturally with the music that envelops it. In the Great Litany, it is hard to imagine Hawes’ words, “In peace, let us pray to the Lord”, and the choral refrain, “Lord have mercy”, in any other guise. The entrance of a male trio with chorus, singing verses from Psalms 1, 2, and 3, is an original touch as is Sheehan’s harmonic homage to a 17th century chant form that predates certain European part writing. One of the great appeals of this Vespers is the way it introduces many Western listeners to sounds that may be new to us, but still ravishing in their sparkling musical attire.
Whether singing with edgy syncopations (in the Lamp-Lighting Psalms section) or crooning sinuously with Eastern-style modulations in the long Stikhira of the Resurrection”, Sheehan’s music suggests descriptions from the glittering mineral kingdom. The intricate musical layers of Gladsome Light (with radiant soprano soloist, Fotina Naumenko) are the aural equivalent of shimmering flakes of mica or the hide-and-seek patterns of flickering red in an opalescent stone. Yet, unlike the mineral world, this music is warm and, though different from what Westerners may be used to, has that unexplainable familiarity that binds people to beauty no matter what its source.
Perhaps the most moving section in this setting is the Evening Prayer, Vouchsafe, O Lord, with elements of Russian common chant. To my ear, it also resembles Anglican chant, but with a contemporary touch, what Sheehan in the booklet notes calls “a distinctly American character”. This section is followed by two totally different musical sensations: some of the lowest vocal bass notes you’ll ever hear (extraordinary basso Glenn Miller in Song of Simeon) and Rejoice, O Virgin, based on a little-known chant of the monastery of St. Cyril, which Sheehan points out may be the only choral setting of this chant in existence.
The only section which seemed more liturgical than aesthetic to this writer’s ear was in the 11th track, Trisagion Prayers, consisting of familiar invocations including the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer three times. But even this uneventful section is a linchpin in the overall structure and story of the Vespers service.
As a lover of choral music, I am often grateful to be alive at a time in history peopled by so many outstanding composers of sacred music for voice. Many listeners revere Pärt as a Bach for our time, while others prefer the smooth articulations of Rutter or the complex introspection of Tavener. It is not too early to add Benedict Sheehan to any list of choral composers and conductors to watch in the 21st century. There seems to be no limit to his melodic and harmonic inventiveness and his ability to use music as a medium for expressing spirituality or, if you prefer, strong emotional feelings grounded in intelligence and tradition. We are fortunate indeed to be with him at the outset of what will become a career of consequence, and to enjoy his great music (and the outstanding singers who give it voice) along the way.