By Sophia S. Huling
“A Festival of Psalms” was the theme for this year’s The Metropolitan Greek Chorale Christmas concert, an eclectic mix of composers, languages, and musical styles, all written to texts from the Biblical Psalms.
Led by conductor Marina Alexander, the 27-member choir performed in the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in New York, NY, whose ample space was nearly filled to capacity with an enthusiastic audience. Keyboardist Yannis Xylas, four violins, a viola, and a cello completed the ensemble.
The highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Alexander’s composition “Goodness and Mercy,” a setting of Psalm 23, alternating between the English and Greek text. Set for choir, mezzo-soprano soloist, and piano, the piece began with a characteristic melody from the Byzantine ecclesiastical 4th Plagal mode, moved into a four-part western music-style harmonization of the melody, and progressed into more complex counterpoint. Reba Evans lent her luscious tone to the solo moments, and in other parts of the piece her operatic voice soared smoothly above the choral sound.
Alexander engaged the audience by presenting an introduction to each piece in her affable, conversational style. She offered her most personal story for “Goodness and Mercy,” which she said she composed within 24 hours and dedicated to the memory of her beloved aunt.
“I got to the part where it says ‘And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,’ and I was trying to think of a way to express that,” she said. “And at that exact moment, I got a phone call from my cousin saying that my dear, dear aunt had passed away. And in some ways I was not sad because I know that she was going with God into the kingdom of heaven.”
Alexander’s cousin Doreen (Drosoula) Yankopoulos, whose mother was the aunt to whom the piece was dedicated, called the piece “magnificent.”
“It was so moving. Marina’s always been such a talented person and she just put something together beautifully. And to think that it’s in honor of my mom makes it that much more precious,” said Yankopoulos. “I believe my mother’s spirit and essence were absolutely personified in the piece.”
The blend of the Byzantine and western styles gave the piece a unique mystical quality, something that Alexander called “a happy blend of both [styles], so that one complements the other.”
Other music to Psalm texts included music by Alan Hovhaness, Greek-American choral arranger Anna Gallos, Russian composer and liturgical music arranger Alexander Gretchaninov, Cesar Franck, Ned Rorem, Wolfgang A. Mozart, Giacomo Puccini Sr., the great-great grandfather of the famous operatic Puccini, and Daniel Moe, Alexander’s composition teacher, whom she called her “musical father.” The Psalms were set in English, Latin, and Greek. Sopranos Kristina Semos and Olga Xanthopoulou, tenor Chris Lucier, and bass Costas Tsourakis rounded out the soloists.
There’s nothing like traditional four-part carols to put one into the Christmas spirit, and this concert was no exception. After singing the Orthodox hymn of the Nativity, “I Yennisi Sou” (Thy Nativity, O Christ), Alexander led the choir – and the audience – in rousing renditions of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” in both English and Greek, as well as former Chorale leader George Tsondakis’ arrangement of the traditional Greek carols, Ta Kalanta.
No Christmas choral concert would be complete without the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah,” and the spare accompaniment by the handful of stringed instruments and the keyboard ended the concert on a delightful note. Alexander explained the legend of the tradition of the audience standing during the piece, which purportedly dates back to the piece’s first London performance. The king, who was in attendance, allegedly was so thrilled by the music that he spontaneously stood up, she said, which was a cue to the rest of the audience to stand as well.
“Guess what: if your king is standing, you better not be sitting down,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “The story may be apocryphal, but you could say we’re standing in a salute to creativity.”