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John Boyer sings Byzantine chant July 27, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Americas, Music Life.

John Boyer sang before he spoke. Not much has changed, at 28, he’s helping to keep alive a rare form of chant that few can master.

As a teenager, John Boyer landed a featured part as the song-and-dance man Billy Faraday in the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Boyer showed exceptional talent in music, but he also enjoyed competing in sports, playing varsity football at Grant High School in Portland, Ore. When Boyer turned 18, he received a scholarship to a summer church camp in an Ionian village in Greece. That’s when he became hooked on Byzantine chant.

Now at age 28, John Boyer is one of the youngest singers in the world to have established himself as an expert in the art of Byzantine chant, the traditional liturgical music of the Greek Orthodox Church. Boyer has already coached Grammy Award-winning Chanticleer and acclaimed soprano Patricia Rosario. He has recently recorded with the English Chamber Choir and is a core member of Cappella Romana, the only professional chorus in the world that sings the music of the Byzantine Empire.

Now Boyer has added to his resume. He’s the newly appointed protopsaltis (first cantor) of the Metropolis of San Francisco (the Greek Orthodox diocese), and he often can be heard chanting this music, whose earliest manuscripts date to the 7th century, at Annunciation Cathedral in the Mission.

“Byzantine music is a whole different sound world that makes people think differently about music,” says Boyer. “It’s soothing to people who live hectic lives, and they want something that has a timeless quality.”

Boyer and Cappella Romana maintain a busy schedule with stops in Italy, London, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., scheduled for this year as well as recording a CD. The Pacific Northwest group will appear in the Bay Area in March. Boyer learned the basics of Byzantine chant from Cappella Romana director and musicologist Alexander Lingas, who conducted Boyer in a children’s choir at Holy Trinity Church in Portland. His mother, Maria Boyer, says her son liked to sing before he could talk. She taught him Greek as his first language, and he was interested in chant from the time he was in middle school. That interest took off after he received the camp scholarship from Holy Trinity Church.

“That camp was such a great experience, that I decided to stay in Greece for a couple extra months,” Boyer says. “I stayed in Athens and studied with Lycourgos Angelopoulos, the director of the Byzantine Choir there. I had lessons with him every day, and I’d follow him to all of his rehearsals and everywhere he sang. … He is a wonderful teacher, constantly moving and constantly working. Sometimes he gets very tired and falls asleep during the lesson he’s giving.”

When Boyer began his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, he continued to devote his musical gift to Byzantine music. Every chance he got he would chant at the nearest Orthodox church.

“Byzantine chant involves moving the larynx in a way that is not customary for Western singers,” says Boyer. “This style of singing produces a slightly nasal tone, somewhat like a drone, with a full, round vibrato. It shouldn’t be a thin nasal voice, but a richer tone with a lot of space behind it. It’s a vocal technique that allows for flexibility to sing in the cracks, microtonal intervals or ornaments that you can achieve by moving the larynx. It also allows you to sing for long periods of time without tiring, and that helps with Greek Orthodox services, which often last a long time.”

Byzantine chant has ties to ancient Greek music as well as to the psalmody of the ancient Jewish temple. You can also think of it as a distant cousin to Gregorian chant, but it sounds distinctly different. Byzantine chant dates to the time of the Byzantine Empire, which was centered in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) and ended in 1453 after a 1,000-year existence. Even though Byzantium ended, its musical tradition kept developing and stayed alive within the Greek Orthodox Church.

How esoteric is this music? Well, first of all, you have to be able to read it, and that’s a for- midable challenge. Even if you can read Western music, your knowledge won’t help you much because Byzantine music doesn’t have lines across the page with notes written down and treble and bass clef symbols. Instead, you see squiggly lines, which to the untrained eye look like Arabic. As Boyer carefully points out, the squiggles are phonetic symbols that indicate when to move up or down and how long to hold the note. It’s all very confusing and, frankly, Byzantine, unless you’ve committed yourself to years of study as Boyer has done.

Although Boyer primarily involves himself in the world of Byzantine chant, he always keeps one foot in the door of Western music. He is the assistant director of BACH (Bay Area Classical Harmonies), a professional music organization that presents a variety of concerts primarily in the Bay Area.

“It’s an organization that gives young professionals a good place to anchor themselves,” says Boyer. “We’ve done chamber works, symphonies, operas and recitals of all types, including some Byzantine chant. But almost all of my work in Byzantine music involves the Orthodox Church and Cappella Romana. Byzantine music is a gift that I identify with. I’m looking forward to more concerts, recordings, and teaching others this beautiful and rich form of music.”

To attend a service in which John Boyer sings Byzantine chant, contact the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco. From Aug. 6-12, he will teach a workshop on Byzantine chant at the St. Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center in Dunlap, near Yosemite National Park.

To listen to John Boyer sing Byzantine chant, go to www.sfgate.com/blogs/podcasts and www.cappellaromana.org/musicbyz.

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