Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40: Benedict Sheehan

In recent years, Orthodox music in America has started to mature and become publicly visible at a high level. Certainly, Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil has certainly become a staple of American choirs, and Arvo Pärt was the most performed living composer in the world for eight years running (John Williams knocked him down to second place this year). Beyond that, we have been blessed over the last decade or so with a tidal wave of creative energy and output by American church musicians, including people in every category of participant — composers, conductors, singers, teachers, and hymnographers — working in every chant and choral idiom you can think of. Not just Byzantine chant and the different genres of Slavic choral music, but also Georgian chant, Greek-American choral polyphony, Finnish choral music, and beyond.

This year’s Grammy nominations reflected these developments: Kurt Sander’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, recorded by the Patriarch Tikhon Choir under the baton of Maestro Peter Jermihov, was nominated for Best Choral Performance. That is to say, an English-language Orthodox choral masterwork, written by an American composer and led by an Orthodox conductor, was recognized at the level of the Grammys. It didn’t win, but ten years ago it would have seemed impossible for a work like that to have been recorded by that level of ensemble, and certainly it would  never been heard by any voting members of the Academy, let alone nominated.

Not only is the creative energy and output maturing, but most of the leaders of the last couple of decades are, too. They’re now inspiring a new generation — a group of hard-working, faithful church musicians coming up in their 20s and 30s who have been brought up on the parish-level work that was done by the leaders who are now in their 40s and 50s. These are men and women of every heritage and musical style and walk of life, and they are all making their own contributions to Orthodox music in America, be it at the level of the parish or in the world of professional musicianship. Throughout 2020, we want to spend some time letting these new faces and voices tell you their stories — who they are, where they come from, what they’re working on, and what they hope for with respect to the musical and liturgical life of the Orthodox Church.

Benedict Sheehan is the first of these you’re going to hear from, and that choice was rather made for us by the calendar. Tomorrow is his fortieth birthday, so today is the very last day that he meets the under-40 criteria. Also, today is Valentine’s Day, and the musical partnership he has with his wife Talia figures in prominently with what he’s going to tell you about, so it seemed appropriate from that angle, too.

We caught up with Benedict by phone. Conversation is edited for clarity.

benedict_sheehanYour name for the record:

Benedict Sheehan.

Your birthday:

February 15, 1980.

What do you and where do you do it?

For the last 10 years I’ve been Music Director at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery, which means that I teach liturgical music to the seminarians, I conduct and oversee the various ensembles that sing in St. Tikhon’s Monastery, including the Seminary Choir, the Monastery Mixed Choir, and the St. Tikhon’s Mission Choir, which is the traveling version of the Seminary Choir. I also oversee repertoire for all of those services, together with my colleagues. Part of the job also means that I work on music publications for St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press. I now have a full-time assistant conductor, the very talented Paul Kappanadze; my wife Talia is now very actively involved in teaching at the Seminary; and we have yet another conductor who has come on the scene, Anastasia Serdsev, who will be taking over some of the responsibilities with the Mixed Choir over the next year.

I am the Artistic Director of the Saint Tikhon Choir, which I founded in 2015, together with Abbot Sergius of St. Tikhon’s Monastery. It is a professional choir under the auspices of the monastery, really the first ensemble of its kind in America.

benedict and taliaJust this year, my wife and I founded The Artefact Institutewhich is a consulting company geared towards what we and our close friend and colleague Dn. Nicholas Kotar are calling “culture creation.” Artefact is an institute of guilds involving music, visual arts, writing and literature, and design and conviviality. In time, we hope it will involve architecture also. Our goal is to establish guilds in various disciplines that will all work together to further the cause of culture creation. We just had our big launch event at St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Louisville, KY, called “Artefact Louisville 2020.” The event involved music, and within the realm of music, there were master classes for conductors, run by Anthony Maglione and myself; for singers, run by Fotina Naumenko and Talia Sheehan; and for Byzantine chanters, run by Photini Downie-Robinson. We also had a writing track, run by Dn. Nicholas Kotar, and we did work in conviviality and hospitality, led by Amanda Jacobs. The whole thing culminated in a large-scale narrative performance based on the life of St. Symeon, which combined a mostly fictional narrative by Dn. Nicholas Kotar and participants in the writing track with music of Rachmaninoff, Billings, Poulenc, Gesualdo, Rheinberger, Richard Toensing, Nicholas Reeves, and myself. We also celebrated services for the Meeting of the Lord (Candlemas) at St. Michael’s, and then we capped it all off with a “village feast” where we ate, we toasted, we told stories, we did contra dancing, and we sang folk songs. We’re planning to do this annually in Louisville.

Artefact also functions as a catch-all for a range of things that we’re doing. This includes a Singing School for kids at St. Tikhon’s; we started that this year, for Pre-K through twelfth grade in three sections. The Singing School meets on Tuesday evenings every week, and it’s got about 70 kids in it right now. This is being run by Talia and Anastasia Serdsev with some other volunteers. It’s turning into quite an operation; kids are being taught to sing in ensembles, but they’re also learning folk dancing, solo singing, and some music theory. They’ve already performed in two concerts, and there will be three more this spring, including one in Washington, DC. Artefact is also publishing my Divine Liturgy score, but we also just produced a book called Twelve Folk Songs: an Essential Collection that we used at the event in Louisville. Talia and I are also running our frequent church choir workshops under the Artefact brand. We’ve been doing those on average one a month for the last two years, and we’re now booked out about eighteen months in various places around the country.

What motivates you to do what you do?

benedict conducting

What motivates me personally is that I love to do this! I love to compose new music, I love to conduct, I love the work of making Orthodox services beautiful in whatever way I can. Aside from that, I’m motivated by my sense that we in Orthodox America—and maybe we’re not all alone in this as Orthodox, but that’s what I’m particularly aware of—have a problem of a declining musical culture. Ever since I got seriously into music in my teens, I’ve had this sense that something needed to be done, and my fear is that we’re at risk of losing our musical life in the church, that we’ll lose this key component of our liturgical life. It’s increasingly falling by the wayside; it’s increasingly an afterthought. So one of the things that motivates me is that I want to help solve this. I want to help draw people’s attention to the problem, and I want to help offer some solutions. I’d like to work against the tide if I can. It’s not just about improving music itself—music, and really, any art, is a fruit of a living and healthy culture. There will never be art if there’s not a culture to produce that art, to appreciate it, and to teach you to understand why it’s important. This is what motivated us to create Artefact; what we’re trying to do is to create a context for these liturgical arts, arts that can’t exist on their own. They can’t just exist in a vacuum. If the only place we ever sing together is in church, eventually we won’t sing together in church either. We need a context for music-making, we need a context for beauty generally, to value it, to know why it’s important, to know where it fits into our lives, and then it will naturally become a thing we do in church, and do well. Part of what motivates me, I guess, is trying to remedy what I see as a death of culture. And this motivates me as a believer, too. I think we’ll gain a lot more ground and we’ll feel better about what we do if our aim is culture creation, not and culture wars. I actually think the culture wars are a big distraction for us as Christians.

Do you see that as a form of evangelism?

Evangelism is not my goal. I think what I’m talking about is, naturally, a form of evangelism, because people naturally want to be part of a thing that’s alive, and that they feel like they can belong to, and they have a place in, and that inspires them—but that’s not my goal. As I said, I do what I do because I want to do it, because it brings me joy. That’s really my main motivation behind culture creation generally. But I do think it will bring other people joy because it brings me joy. As we confessed to people in Louisville, a big part of why we’re doing all of this is because we kind of just want to have a good party! But, on the way towards finding fulfillment ourselves, I suspect other people will find fulfillment as well. I want people to join me in this thing that brings me joy. But my goal is not to convert them, and I’m very clear about that. What they do with all this is their business.

I can see that, given where people are in their lives, or where they are in their faith, sometimes it’s not even the best thing for someone to just jump up and convert to Orthodoxy. It can wreak a lot of havoc in your life, and you have to have enough resources to deal with that. Sometimes people don’t, and they need to be honest about that. So I’m not interested in making converts; I’m interested in bringing people joy and meaning, in bringing what I know of Christ’s beauty, the Church’s beauty—and that means both worship and conviviality, hospitality—into people’s lives, into my own life. If somebody who joins me doesn’t become Orthodox because of it, I won’t feel like I’ve failed in my mission, and if they do become Orthodox, I won’t feel like it’s a point gained. That’s their journey and their concern. That’s God’s concern. I think the opposite approach actually risks being disingenuous; for me, it boils down to: why do we want people to convert? There are often complicated reasons we want that, but sometimes we want other people to convert so we can justify our own conversion, or so we can feel less alone in this strange thing we do. Or we want people to convert because we want to shore up our tottering institutions, because we need warm bodies so we won’t have to shut down our parish. That, to me, is not evangelism.

What are the projects you’re working on that you haven’t already told us about?

I’m excited to be writing music for the Skylark Vocal Ensemble. They’ve recorded and premiered the “Once Upon A Time” program, for which I wrote what we’re calling a “story score” — it’s a score that goes underneath a narrator designed to link together set pieces in a program. This first project with them involved a bunch of existing music by other composers, but they’ve now commissioned me to write a whole program for this coming Christmas based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That will be premiered and recorded in December of 2020. 

I’m being commissioned by St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Louisville to write another Divine Liturgy. If you think of the Liturgy I finished in 2018 as your “ball gown”, the Liturgy that St. Michael’s is commissioning me to write is something more like your “Sunday best”, if you know what I mean. I’m really excited to do this, to compose music that really reflects their community, and the people that make it up, and their diverse ethnic backgrounds.

In 2017 I started working regularly with Cappella Romana in Portland as a guest conductor, and my work with them will continue in 2020 with a Tchaikovsky Liturgy program in March, and then conducting my own Liturgy with them in November. I’m very excited about both of these projects.

In 2021, I’m planning to start work on a new large-scale score for Vespers, upon the request of Abbot Sergius. We also have a followup volume coming to The Common Book of Church Hymns: Divine Liturgy — a Vespers volume is currently in the works and will be out sometime in 2020 from St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press.

In the fall of 2018, the Saint Tikhon Choir collaborated on the large-scale performance and recording of the 1917 Kastalsky Requiem with The Clarion Choir, The Kansas City Chorale, the Cathedral Choral Society, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, with Maestro Leonard Slatkin conducting. That recording will be released in May of this year.

The recording of my Divine Liturgy that I conducted with the Saint Tikhon Choir will be released in June on Cappella Romana’s label. The Skylark “Once Upon A Time” recording actually gets released today—look for it on Spotify! And, I just had three pieces accepted for publication by Oxford University Press, so I hope those will be out in the next few months. I was actually told a couple weeks ago that John Rutter and Bob Chilcott have picked one of my new pieces for their annual recording of Oxford composers, so that’s very exciting!

What are the projects you want to work on?

Here’s the thing—I feel like I’ve somehow ended up with my entire wish list as a “To-Do” list, so now I have the rather daunting task of somehow having to pull it all off! But here’s a couple things. I would love to get my Divine Liturgy sung at the next All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America in Baltimore in 2021. I would also love to get a commission for a choral-orchestral work before too long, ideally something that ties liturgical themes and structures together with narrative and epic storytelling. I have a vision that’s starting to coalesce in my mind for something along those lines.

What is your sense of the big picture (beyond what you’ve said already):

I think for the big picture for Orthodox music in America, the most important thing that we need to do, right now in the next 10 years, is to create some key positions for church musicians. There need to be jobs — even just a few, even just a half dozen or a dozen jobs around the country, that pay a competitive salary, that a young person could realistically decide to undergo musical training, to go to musical school to get. That’s what we need immediately.

Thank you very much, Benedict! More of these to come throughout the year.