NEW YORK – One does not typically associate the Byzantine Empire, which flourished for more than a millennium before it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with the United States of the twenty-first century, but for oud player and singer Kyriakos Kalaitzidis, the artistic director of the Greek musical ensemble En Chordais, contemporary America mirrors Byzantium’s multicultural society and diverse ethnic influences.
In its U.S. debut on October 19, En Chordais captivated more than 700 spectators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Auditorium in a concert of vocal and instrumental music in the Byzantine tradition. In an hour and 40 minutes, the ensemble demonstrated that the Byzantine Empire spanned the entire eastern Mediterranean not only geographically, but in its musical heritage as well. On traditional instruments common throughout the region, the nine musicians performed songs dating as far back as the 1400s in Greek, Persian, Arabic, classical Ottoman and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ. Titled “Sounds of the Musical Tradition of Byzantium and the Neighboring Lands,” the concert was offered free of charge by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA).
“You have to think of this period like America is today – multicultural,” said Kalaitzidis. “Don’t think in terms of Turkey, Greece – it was much more blended.”
Accordingly, the musicians covered a wide range of expertise and ethnic backgrounds, and all have performed with many ensembles throughout the world. Kyriakos Petras played violin. Alkis Zopoglou played qanun, a dulcimer small enough to sit on a player’s lap. The Iranian-born Kiya Tabassian played the setar, a Persian plucked-string instrument with a long, thin fretboard and a small body. Vasilis Tzortzinis played upright contrabass. Petros Papageorgiou and Ziya Tabassian played no less than nine different percussion instruments, including different sized dumbeks, flat drums and tambourines. Singers were the Greek Drossos Koutsokostas, who began studying Byzantine music at age nine, and Lebanese Ghada Shbeir, who specializes in ecclesiastical, Arab-Andalusian, and Syrian music in the Aramaic dialect.
The concert not only flowed seamlessly through Byzantium’s styles and eras, but the musicians were confident enough in their message that they weren’t afraid of silences during a piece, or of ending a song with a seductive whisper rather than a bombastic roar.
The program opened with “T’Aidonia tis Anatolis” (Nightingales of the East), a traditional Greek song of the 17th century, found among manuscripts in the Holy Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos. Any regular Orthodox churchgoer would recognize the imprint of Byzantine ecclesiastical chant in the haunting melisma sung masterfully by Koutsokostas. It was a stunning revelation to hear Byzantine music with secular lyrics and accompanied by the oud.
In “Giati pouli m’ den kelaideis” (My little bird, why do you not sing), a lament for the fall of Constantinople from 1453, Shbeir’s heartrending mezzo blended effortlessly with Petras’ mournful violin as the other instruments held a single tone of persistent grief to express the event that caused “the irreversible transformation of the world,” as Kalaitzidis described it.
The multi-lingual Shbeir also sang the traditional Maronite hymn (still used today) “Ya Ummallah” (O, Mother of God) in Aramaic as a solo with no instrumental accompaniment. With outstretched palms facing upward in prayerful entreaty and a flawless, fully exposed voice, she was mesmerizing.
She followed it up with two songs in Arabic by Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish (1892-1923) that used an assortment of percussion and plenty of alluring vocal flutters.
Other pieces included the Persian “Tasnif Persikon,” by the prominent fifteenth-century Ottoman Persian composer ‘Abd Al-Qadir Al-Maraghi, and “Darnava, dastgah-e Nava,” both with the virtuosic setar of Tabassian. “Elpiza kai pali elpizo” (I had hoped and I still do) was written by Gregorios Protopsaltes in 1821, the year Greece launched its war of independence from Ottoman rule, and was also discovered on Mount Athos. “Husseyni Ayir Semai,” by the 18th century Greek composer Zakharia Khanendeh (“Khanendeh” is a Persian title meaning “Singer”) was sung by Koutsokostas in classical Ottoman dialect. The three contemporary pieces included the gentle “Night” by Zopoglou, an instrumental; “New York Syrto” by Kalaitzidis, and the fiery “Ariadne” by Tzortzinis, which ended the concert, the latter two liberally borrowing from Arabic vocal styles with melismatic embellishments.
“We want to stress that not only did Byzantine music influence others, but the course of Greek music was also influenced by the Middle East,” Kalaitzidis said. “It was an osmosis.”
For Kalaitzidis, New York City in 2009 and Constantinople in 1400 both symbolize “freedom, diversity, and dynamism in every manifestation of human activity. Constantinople was the undisputed center for traditional Byzantine music. I like to imagine the twentieth-century New York City as a parallel to Constantinople during the Byzantine period,” he wrote in the program’s liner notes.
As a tribute to his “ideal city,” Kalaitzidis wrote “New York Syrto,” a 10-minute tour de force that began with an oud solo, eventually bringing in all nine musicians that drove the hypnotic syrto dance rhythm and set the audiences’ feet tapping and fingers strumming. This listener had trouble staying seated.
Kalaitzidis dedicated his composition to the Onassis Cultural Center’s founder, Aristotle Onassis, and legendary director Elia Kazan, both of whom he said came from his mother’s homeland: Moutalassaki in Cappadoccia (modern-day Turkey).
Launched in Thessaloniki, Greece in 1993 by Kalaitzidis and other like-minded musicians, En Chordais has sought, through its project MediMuses, to research, teach and promote the musical traditions of the Mediterranean through international workshops, lectures, book publications, concerts, and producing recordings of their own and other ensembles.
Executive Director Loucas Tsilas explained what inspired the Onassis Foundation to bring En Chordais to the U.S. “Their very high level of musical quality as an ensemble, their educational quality, their research, and their astonishingly admirable results,” he said.
Recordings of the group are available at the Hellenic Museum Shop, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. They include “Zakharia Khanendeh – Classical Near Eastern music from 18th Century Constantinople”; “Exoria” and “To parmithi tis mousikis” (Kalaitzidis’ original works); and “Sayyed Darwish” with the Beirut Oriental Ensemble, which include some of En Chordais’ collaborating musicians.