ARCHDIOCESAN BYZANTINE CHOIR RETURNS HOME FROM HISTORIC PILGRIMAGE TO THE ECUMENICAL PATRIARCHATE AND CONCERT IN THE ANCIENT CHURCH OF HAGIA IRINI

NEW YORK, NY— With the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, thirty-seven members of the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America traveled to Constantinople (November 27 – December 2) for the Thronal Feast of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle.

The choir arrived in Constantinople very early on Thanksgiving Day. Upon arrival they visited the historic Monastery of the Life-Giving Spring in Balukli to receive holy water from the Life-Giving Spring and pay their respects to many of the past patriarchs of Constantinople who are entombed there. Buried at Balukli is also the former Archbishop of America (and later Ecumenical Patriarch), Athenagoras. From there, the group visited the famous Monastery Church of Chora with its exquisite and world-renowned mosaics. The last visit of the day was to the Church of Panagia Vlacheron where the hymn Ti Ypermaho was first chanted. The choir gathered around and also chanted this hymn in honor of the miracle of Panagia that occurred in the 6th century and saved Constantinople from being conquered. The evening ended with a Thanksgiving Day meal at the hotel.

On Friday morning, the choir departed for the greatest church of Christendom, the church of Hagia Sophia. After spending more than two hours in the church, the choir, together with Archbishop Demetrios of America, went to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for a private audience with His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The choir was received in the Great Patriarchal Throne Room and welcomed by His All-Holiness who distributed a special blessing to each member of choir and their families. The choir was offered a tour of the Patriarchal Church of St. George where they reverenced the relics of Three Great Ecumenical Fathers of the Church, Saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. They also reverenced the relics of three great women Saints: Efthymia, Solomoni and Theophano. After this blessing the members of the choir remained in the Patriarchal church for Great Vespers for the feast of Saint Andrew the First-Called Apostle.

On November 30, the day began with the Patriarchal con-celebration for the feast of Saint Andrew. With over 400 people in attendance, the Divine Liturgy included the ordination of a bishop and the presence of the official delegation sent from the Vatican for the feast. After Liturgy, the choir proceeded to the great and sacred Church of Hagia Irini.

The church of Hagia Irini was the site of the 2nd Ecumenical Council in 381AD. It not only stands directly behind the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, but predates it. The Symbol of the Faith (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) was drafted within Hagia Irini in 381AD by St. Gregory the Theologian – who was Archbishop of Constantinople at that time – and was subsequently promulgated throughout the church and Empire, ultimately reaching the shores of America. Thus, the symbolism of this historic performance by young men who were, for the most part, born and raised in the United States was profoundly understood. It was a unique opportunity for the members of the choir to return to and re-discovery the spiritual and ecclesiastical roots of Byzantine Music.

More than 400 people were in attendance, including: His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, hierarchs from the patriarchate and numerous diplomats and ambassadors from Constantinople. The Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, under the direction of Dr. Demetrios Kehagias, entered the holy altar area of Hagia Irini filled with emotion and opened the evening chanting Ti Ypermaho. The program included musical selections that were first heard within the Great Imperial City of Constantinople beginning with pieces composed by Petros the Peloponnesian, Lampadarios of the Great Church of Christ and arguably greatest post-Byzantine ecclesiastical composer. The final hymn of the concert was an excerpt from St. Gregory the Theologian’s 23rd Oration (on the theme of God’s peace) set to music by professor Dr. Grammenos Karanos from Holy Cross School of Theology in honor of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Introducing the composition, Dr. Karanos stated, “Your All Holiness, perhaps there is no more fitting place to hear this praise of peace than this sacred place, the Church of Hagia Irini, the Peace of God. The idea to set this excerpt… to music belongs to the Managing Director of our choir, the Reverend Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos, who assigned the task to me. The choir will now perform the resulting composition. It is a humble work that doesn’t claim high artistry or originality, but it is derived from the musical tradition of the Great Church of Christ. This work is dedicated with reverence to your All Holiness by all the members of the choir, and will conclude tonight’s concert. We humbly ask that you receive it as an expression of our deep love and admiration for you and your patriarchal ministry.”

In his remarks following the last hymn, Archbishop Demetrios stated, “I express my deepest gratitude to His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch for the unique blessing to be present is this sacred space for tonight’s Byzantine Music concert. Tonight’s concert coincides with what is known as Thanksgiving Day weekend in the United States and what better way to give thanks to God for His abundant gifts than with this concert of sacred music in honor of our Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Thronal feast of the First-Called Apostle, Andrew.

At the conclusion of the concert, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew addressed those in attendance saying, “It is truly a great privilege and pleasure to welcome and greet all of you in this historic and magnificent building of Haghia Irene, where we have gathered once again to attend a splendid concert – a truly beautiful exposition and expression of sacred music – by the young and talented members of the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in the presence of their primate and founder, our beloved brother and Exarch in the United States, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios. There is something uniquely inspiring about a concert with authentic traditional religious music. For when it is genuinely and respectfully performed, not only does it unite heaven and earth, but it also connects all of humanity – above and beyond any racial, cultural, and religious distinctions and differences. It is this harmony and concord that we are grateful to experience this evening as we listen to musical pieces that transcend language and time. In this regard, we could say that music is by nature the vocabulary of love, the language of heaven. This is why the great teachers of the Christian Church claimed that music is the way the heart communicates with its Creator.

Therefore, we congratulate the organizers of this splendid event, under the chairmanship of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, our beloved brother and concelebrant in Christ, as well as the members of the choir, to whom we extend our wholehearted blessing.”

Commenting on the historical significance of the concert, Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos, director of the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music, said, “without exaggeration, this was the single most humbling and blessed moment of this choir’s short life. To be in the church of Hagia Irini, a church that was never converted into a mosque, and to chant hymns from our ecclesiastical tradition in praise of our Lord and in honor of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew whom we not only love, but know very well the conditions and pressures of his patriarchal ministry, is profoundly humbling. I know that I speak for all 36 members who joined me on this trip when I say that we all felt a tremendous amount of gratitude to God for bestowing upon us this great blessing to perform, or should I say pray in Hagia Irini. The choir members have expressed to me, ‘no one can understand who they are, and what being an Orthodox Christian means unless they visit the Patriarchate and the Great Churches of Constantinople.’”

After the concert, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew hosted a dinner in honor of the choir in Mega Revma (dedicated to the Archangels), the home parish which sits on the Bosphoros of His Grace Bishop Philotheos of Meloa, a distinguished retired bishop of our Holy Archdiocese.

On Sunday, December 1, members of the choir were invited to join the chanters of the two choirs in the patriarchal church of St. George. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, Mr. Nicholas Steliaros of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Whitestone, NY was bestowed the Offikion of Archon Mousikodidaskalos of the Great Church of Christ (Archon, Great Teacher of Music) of the order of Panagia Pamakastitos by His All-Holiness. This was the first time any chanter had received this type of Offikion in the history of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Archon Nicholas Steliaros has served the Archdiocese for over 50 years teaching countless people Byzantine music. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios stated, “It is a great honor not only for Archon Steliaros to receive this Offikion but also for our Archdiocese. He has now gained the recognition of the Patriarchate for his tireless years of offering this most sacred and important ministry to our Archdiocese.”

The members of the choir that performed were: Dr. Demetrios Kehagias, Director, Rev. Fr. Aristidis Garinis, Rev. Fr. Demetrios Kazakis, Archd. Panteleimon Papadopoulos, Professor Grammenos Karanos, George Antoniou, Nektarios Antoniou, Yorgi Argarun, John Boyer, Gabriel Cremeens, Rassem El Massih, George Giavris, Nicholas Gregoriades, Andreas Houpos, Antonios Kehagias, Athanasios Koukoulis, John Mavrogiannis, Michael Mercado, Athanasios Minetos, Anastasios Mirisis, Dimosthenis Papaioannou, Peter Papazafiropoulos, Fotis Papiris, Nicholas Paros, George Petrides, George Psevdos, Nicholas Rallis, Peter Romanovsky, Neofitos Sarigiannis, Christos Stavropoulos, John Szymkiewicz, James Tsimis, Andrew Tsunis, Nicolaos Tzetzis, Chris Vitelas, Evaggelos Zaharatos, Haralambos Zaharis.

To view the video of the concert click here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sOd5guED2s

To see photos click here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/goabyzantinemusic/sets/72157638295328456/