EVANSTON, IL — A three-day celebration of Armenian Church music brought clergy, deacons, choir singers, instrumentalists, and lovers of liturgical music to the St. James of Nisibis Church in Evanston, IL, over the weekend of October 4-6.
Bishop Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, presided over the “Sacred Music Festival,” organized by the Eastern Diocese’s Sacred Music Council (SMC). Around 50 people took part in its expert-led instructional workshops, educational seminars, and concert performances.
The tightly-packed schedule included a keynote address by the Primate, and sessions led by Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian, Fr. Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan, Dn. Rubik Mailian, Solange Merdinian, and Sevag Derderian. It began on Friday evening with a reception for parish choir directors and clergy hosted by Bishop Daniel.
Following a vespers service and dinner, Dn. Rubik Mailian gave a stunning lecture and recital titled “Gomidas Vartabed at 150 Years: His Contribution to Armenian Sacred Music.” At various points in his presentation, Dn. Rubik had the audience singing along with his renditions of Gomidas’ hymns. As a prelude to the recital, St. James Church’s Narek Children’s Bell Choir performed a short set of pieces.
Saturday involved a full day of activities, beginning with a morning service and Bishop Daniel’s keynote address, “When Armenians Sing with the Angels.”
“Srpazan’s speech truly set the tone for the entire festival, and had people talking about living up to the ideal of ‘singing with the angels,’” said Evanston pastor Fr. Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan, who chairs the Sacred Music Council and led the effort to organize the festival.
Spiritual and Practical
Breakout sessions involved instructors offering workshops on vocal technique, choir direction, youth outreach, and the use of the organ and other musical instruments in the church setting.
Attendees learned about the formal aspects of Armenian sacred music pertaining to meaning and performance. But they also received practical training on topics like posture, nutrition, and exercise, which can significantly enhance individual ability, and help singers adapt their talents as they age.
The Sacred Music Council gave a presentation on digital resources it has developed to aid choirs and deacons.
Festival attendees also came together to rehearse two compositions by Gomidas—his settings of Hayr Mer and Sourp, Sourp—in anticipation of the next day’s Divine Liturgy.
In their occasional free time, attendees explored downtown Evanston and Northwestern University campus, as well as the Lake Michigan shoreline with its vista of downtown Chicago.
Saturday’s schedule concluded with the screening of Singing in Exile, a documentary about a vanishing aspect of liturgical singing. It was followed by a discussion session with Aram Kerovpyan, director of the Akn Choir featured in the film, who answered audience questions via Skype.
A Force That Binds Us
The culmination of the festival came Sunday morning, as Bishop Daniel celebrated badarak with all the festival attendees participating. Fellowship afterwards gave everyone a final chance to enjoy each other’s company before returning home.
“People were very excited after the festival,” said Fr. Khoja-Eynatyan. “And they were eager to have more gatherings like this. We need to consider responding to that hunger, perhaps holding these festivals periodically in the Diocesan regions.”
“No matter where in the Diocese—or the world—they live, Armenian altar servers and choir members share something deep and profound in common,” observed the Primate.
“Our sacred music is a force that binds us, elevates us, summons us closer to our Lord,” he said. “This excellent festival was an important way to acknowledge the vital role played by these servants of the church, and to encourage others to join them.”