Redefining “Breath-taking”

I’m not even sure how to begin blogging about this evening. Jesse and I just witnessed one of the most incredible concerts I’ll ever go to in this life.

I knew to expect awesome music. I didn’t realize, however, that I would have to pick my jaw up off the floor the whole entire time. It was ABSOLUTELY RIVETING. I never knew how fitting the term, “breathless” really is– there were times that I got light-headed, simply because I kept forgetting to breathe! Sounds dramatic, I know, but I was absolutely stunned into motionless awe. Our friend Clay said that he doesn’t think he did anything but blink his eyelids and swallow the entire last hour.

Known as the best modern composer of our time, Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church is currently in the USA, watching his masterpiece, St. Matthew’s Passion, be performed in New York and Dallas. The one that took place in New York happened on the 7th of January and cost $20/each for the nosebleed seats. Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas, however, put it on for free. They mostly featured singers who received their graduate degrees in music from Julliard. No amateurs to be found. Here is the press release on their website.

I've seen a lot of big churches in Texas, but this was definitely the biggest. What you see here is just the main sanctuary-- the other 2/3 of the church spread out over a block

The inner sanctuary where the concert was held

Not only is Metropolitan Hilarion a famous, international figure, he’s also one of the smartest men in the world today with a Doctorate from Oxford and another one from Moscow Theologial Seminary, authoring over 600 publications.

Besides being smart, he’s also extremely musically gifted, receiving his classical music education at the Moscow Gnessins School and then later as a Moscow State Conservatory. He’s composed several famous choral symphonies and orchestras– all of which have been performed in Russian ONLY, until now.

So, Jesse and I decided we simply had to attend, especially since there was free childcare. Since there was only one other baby in the under 1 yr. room, G got one-on-one attention for the entire event. The baby room was replete with cribs, swings, bouncers, exersaucers, even an armed policewoman at the front desk. I had to sign him in where they gave me a pager in case he was inconsolable. It was hard to hand him over for a few hours– my hand was shaking as I filled out the form– but the ladies were so tender and warm, it was hard to feel too scared. Plus, they took down all sorts of information (does he like to be swaddled when he sleeps? Does he have his own pacifier, or do we need to give him one of ours?), so I knew he’d be well attended to. I had also just nursed him, so I knew that he wouldn’t need to eat.

Basically, the entire work has 4 sections: The Last Supper, The Trial, The Crucifixion and The Burial. There were sections where the “Evangelist” (similar to what a Reader does during a typical Orthodox service) sang responses straight from the gospel of Matthew to the choir while the orchestra played. Every word was written out for us in our program. Most of it was taken directly from our Lenten Holy Week services.

The highlights for me:

The first was in The Trial, where they are questioning Judas. The music was so low, so sinister, and so eerily beautiful…this was the first time that I forgot to breathe. The words: What reason led thee, Judas, to betray the Savior? Did He expel thee from the company of the apostles? Did He deprive thee of the gift of healing? When thou wast at supper with the others, did He drive thee from the table? When He washed the others’ feet, did He pass thee by? How many are the blessings that thou has forgotten! Thou are condemned for thine ingratitude, but His measureless longsuffering and great mercy are proclaimed to all. I couldn’t find a YouTube video for this part, but if you go here and skip it to a little after a third of the way, you should find it. Even though it’s in Russian, I was able to identify it…very distinctive “bad guy” sound to it.

The second was at the end of The Last Supper where they sang The Beatitudes. The line, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for Righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, clearly is calling the audience to participate in the crucifixion, remembering that we are to die with Christ so that we might live.

The third was during The Crucifixion. You would expect that this would be the saddest part of the whole thing, and it definitely was, but only for a short while. The key actually switched from Minor to Major at the end of this section as a way of showing how much hope we find through Christ’s death. No Mel Gibson-esque reveling in the gore and pain. There was even only one small piece devoted to Mary’s suffering. My favorite part: Today He is hung upon the Cross who hung the earth upon the waters. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free received blows on His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.

(Word to the Wise: The Prettiest/Saddest Part of this section is about 3/4 of the way through the Russian video. Wait for the picture of Jesus nailed to the cross. After that reading– Matt. 27:45-50, just the women sing, with the sopranos holding one note, the mezzos descending incrementally, as they sing, “We hymn Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks to Thee, O Lord, and we pray unto Thee, O our God”…absolutely gorgeous).

But the ABSOLUTE best part? The opening of The Crucifixion, right after the Intermission. Everything is completely silent. The bass strings begin, low and slow. The violas are added in harmony. And then, just the men sing, barely audible: Let all mortal flesh stand with fear and trembling, and let it keep silence and take no thought for any earthly thing. For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords draws near to be sacrificed and given as food to the faithful. Alleluia. It was stunning. I didn’t know whether to pray or sit and marvel at the beauty behind the composition. You can find this section at the same Russian website as before by skipping halfway through the video. Wait for the violins to finish playing the ending Fugue, silence, and then it will be there.

Please, take a few minutes to listen to these excerpts. I promise, you won’t regret it. This concert was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced– I’d be shocked if you didn’t take away at least something from listening.

This is the opening number, where the choir sings, “Come, let us sing a holy lament to Christ. Come, let us sing holy laments to Christ. Alleluia. Lord my God, I will sing to Thee a funeral song. Thine all-holy Mother weeps for Thee, lamenting.” Don’t worry if you can’t understand what they’re saying– this Youtube version is in Russian (as I said, the only 2 English performances ever done just occurred this last week!).

This second excerpt is the Finale, where they sing: “Thy death, O Lord, we proclaim. Alleluia, glory to Thee.” The last 2 minutes of the video are of Metropolitan Hilarion receiving a standing ovation.

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