Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Record Number of Attendees at Sacred Music Institute

(Antiochian) - Not even a global pandemic could stop 357 voices from across the Antiochian Archdiocese – and other Orthodox Christian jurisdictions – from gathering to learn how best to worship and glorify God through singing/chanting and conducting. Without missing a beat, the Department of Sacred Music hosted its 35th annual Sacred Music Institute and ninth annual Youth Music Ministry – virtually via Zoom meeting – on the weekend of July 17-19, 2020. The theme served as a comfort during troubling times: “God is with Us: Music of the Nativity of Christ.”

From his office at the Archdiocesan Headquarters in Englewood, New Jersey, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph welcomed the attendees and teachers. He had hoped to greet each one of them in person – as is the yearly custom at the Antiochian Village – but Sayidna found silver linings. “This generation has its turn to sacrifice for the common good and safety of our brothers and sisters while denying our own wants and desires.” He continued, “This time has hopefully allowed us to pray more, be with the family, look inwardly and see that while we commune with God in the church in an intimate way as the body of Christ, He is also ‘everywhere present and fillest all things.’” Sayidna Joseph was also thankful that the SMI and YMM could gather virtually.

Throughout the weekend, the hundreds of small faces filled computer and tablet screens, actively listening to their instructors, taking notes, and even activating their microphones to chime in with answers during the interactive learning. In the breakout sessions, the instructors shared views of their course work and presentations on their screens so the students could easily follow along. Those students flashed “thumbs up” signs every time they understood something new.

The evenings – or late afternoons depending on the time zone – were filled with poignant presentations. Fr. John Erickson, the former dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, talked about “celebrating the fullness of time in a time of uncertainty.” He stressed that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ came into the world at just the right time to save us (Gal. 4:4-7). Fr. John reminded participants that superficiality – and our panic during these troubling times – could lead to forgetfulness of the centrality of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Joshua Sturgill spoke on the life, conversion and musical compositions of Maia Aprahamian. Fr. John Finley and Dr. Michael Farrow portrayed the history and use of paraliturgical music for the Nativity of Christ. Iconographer Kh. Erin Kimmett offered a presentation entitled “God is With Us in Icons and Song,” weaving together the symbolism seen in the Nativity icon to the hymnography of the feast. A forum of Byzantine chant experts – Dn. John El Massih, Chadi Karam and Dr. Jessica Suchy-Pilalis – discussed composition, moderated by Charlie Marge.  Greg Abdalah and Danielle Pronkta taught our youth how to sing and discussed the service of the Royal Hours, which is celebrate at Christmas, Epiphany and on Holy Friday. Stephen and Amanda Jacobs hosted a virtual Christmas concert featuring their choir of St. Michael the Archangel Antiochian Orthodox Church in Louisville, Kentucky. They shared YouTube videos of their favorite pieces and told attendees how to host concerts as a ministry and outreach to those seeking the True Faith.

And on Sunday night, the children and grandchildren of Fr. Elias Bitar – of blessed memory and eternal repose – invoked fond, historic memories of the “Voice of the Archdiocese.” They played videos highlighting his life in Christ and some of the hymns he chanted beautifully. They recalled his impact not just on his students of sacred church music, but of the Christian love that he exuded upon everyone he met.

“Everything my father did was rooted in offering,” his oldest child, Katrina Bitar, said. “To know him was to be loved by him. He never sought glory for himself and never desired to do anything but lift burdens and respond to the needs that he encountered. He sang with purpose, and he taught because it was natural to pass on what he was gifted with.”

Mrs. Mareena Boosamra Ball, chairwoman of the Department of Sacred Music, closed the virtual SMI and YMM by thanking everyone who made them so successful, including instructors Kh. Nancy Hanna Long, Dr. Nick Jones, Amy Hogg, Dr. Zhanna Lehmann, Regina Roum, Kh. Suzanne Murphy and Chris Holwey. She also thanked Kris Howard for mastering Zoom to bring our Metropolitan Joseph, instructors and students together. Mareena reminded the participants, especially those who have not been able to sing and chant in church during the Coronavirus pandemic: “We’re here for you, and we want you to feel like you can reach out to us. We’re here to help you get through this.”

Mareena also said the virtual programs will likely become a component of the in-person SMI and YMM when they resume, God willing, next year. Mark your calendars for the Winter Sacred Music Institute from March 4-7, 2021 in Wichita, Kansas, as well as the Summer Sacred Music Institute from July 14-18, 2021 at Antiochian Village that immediately precedes the Archdiocesan Convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. If you missed the virtual conferences, you can join the Sacred Music page on Facebook (it’s a closed group, so please ask for admission). Throughout the year, you can find interesting and helpful materials and some of the virtual classes from this year’s SMI.

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