NEW YORK – The Axion Estin Foundation Chanters performed the Byzantine Pop-Ups on Friday, December 15 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Sculpture Hall, Gallery 305, in front of the only full-scale, authorized painting of the Deesis Mosaic from Hagia Sophia. The original mosaic displaying the Deesis (Christ flanked by the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist) was one of the finest works produced in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Concealed for centuries after the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the mosaic was one of the many in Hagia Sophia restored by the Byzantine Institute of America in the late 1930s. The newly revealed mosaics were the focus of an exhibition at the Museum in 1944, when this work was featured.
The dramatic setting with its festive and holy atmosphere enhanced by the beautifully decorated Christmas tree surrounded by the Neapolitan Baroque Creche attracted Byzantine music enthusiasts as well as a curious crowd of museum visitors.
Christos Chalkias struck the talanto to signal the start of the performance. Specially made for the Byzantine Pop-Ups by the Xenophontos monastery, the talanto, a wooden plank used instead of a bell in monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, summons the monks to prayer and meals.
Among the hymns performed was Christ is Born, Glorify Him and continued with Christmas chants and carols from the Byzantine Empire. The music included scores in multiple language as they have been transmitted orally or preserved in centuries-old Greek music manuscripts. The versions in Arabic are informed by the original work conducted by legendary Lebanese cantor Mitri el-Murr. The versions in Armenian pay tribute to the once-thriving Armenian community of Aleppo, through the study of renditions as they were preserved until the start of the devastating civil war in Syria. The versions in Russian reflect ongoing explorations on the use of the Church Slavonic language, intonated and inspired by the Byzantine music modal system as interpreted by the late Lycourgos Angelopoulos.
Among those in attendance at the event were Consul General of Greece in New York Konstantinos Koutras, Consul of Greece Spyridoula-Ioanna Zochiou, and AGAPW founder and president Olga Alexakos.
The museum visitors were captivated by the powerful voices of the chanters. Some had come only to see the Christmas tree and were pleasantly surprised by the performance that took place. Many attendees were of Greek descent and recognized the hymns and carols, noting that “now they felt the true spirit of Christmas.” There were three performances of the Byzantine Pop-Ups at 4, 6, and 8 PM and all were free with admission to the museum.
The performers, an international ensemble of singers in the Axion Estin Foundation Chanters, included Eleftherios Eleftheriadis, Christos Chalkias, Nektarios Antoniou, Rassem El Massih, Spyro Antonopoulos, Georgios Theodoridis, Stephen Esper, Constantine Kokenes, Theodore Brakatselos, Nicholas Reeves, and Eystratios Gatanas.
Eleftheriadis, director of the Axion Estin Chanters, is the foundation’s artist in residence since 2013. This year marks his fourth appearance in the Byzantine Pop-Ups at The Metropolitan Museum of Art following three previous performances in the Byzantine Pop-Ups (December 2014, 2015, and 2016), as well as in the concerts Looking East from Byzantium (March 2015) and Al-Quds: Jerusalem (December 2016) both at The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Eleftheriadis is affiliated with the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church and the William Spyropoulos School, both in Flushing, New York.
The Byzantine Pop-Ups are made possible by the Axion Estin Foundation (AEF), a not-for-profit educational organization with a core mission of promoting Byzantine Music and the Arts. AEF seeks to stimulate appreciation and study of this art form through its unique network of academic, music, arts, and liturgical organizations in the United States and internationally. AEF produces programming, events, and publications in a comprehensive effort to broaden understanding and audience for Byzantine Music in the United States.
Lead Support for Axion Estin Foundation’s Byzantine Pop-Up Concerts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was provided by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Major support for Axion Estin Foundation’s Byzantine Pop-Up Concerts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was also provided by The Rev. Peter N. Kyriakos Endowment Fund.
Axion Estin Foundation Chanter Christos Chalkias strikes the talanton to begin the Byzantine Pop-Ups at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by fellow chanter Nektarios Antoniou. Photo by Eleni Sakellis