John of Damascus

revealing Orthodox Christianity through its sacred music

Directors' Notes



Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40: Olivia Insignares

Christ is risen!

We launched our Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40 series of profiles back in February, and then a couple of things have happened in the world since that you might be aware of that slowed us down. Now that we’re at least on the other side of Lent, however, we’re going to get back into this with some purpose, and we’re going to finish out 2020 with this series completed.

Olivia Insignares is a student at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, but at 29, she’s already a highly experienced and skilled singer and conductor who brings together a number of qualities common to the generation of Orthodox musician we’re profiling. She takes this liturgical craft seriously spiritually and professionally, she is flexible with respect to musical idiom, she has a broad skill set, she believes strongly that beautiful music is a necessary component of beautiful worship, and that this is both a gift to the faithful and a tool for evangelizing the world at large.

We spoke to Olivia over the phone on March 11 2020. N.B. — we interviewed her right before the long-term consequences of the pandemic became clear, so she refers to events that had been upcoming for summer 2020 that, alas, were subsequently cancelled, postponed, or reconceived.

olivia insignares 2

Your name for the record:

Olivia Insignares.

When is your birthday?

My birthday is July 29, 1990.

What do you do and where do you do it?

At the seminary, I’m a student conductor and I sing in nearly every ensemble here at St. Tikhon’s. There are about five different choirs. And it’s interesting because I’m an alto, too, but I sing with a male quartet. I think it is possible that I may be the only woman right now in the OCA that sings regularly with a normally all-male ensemble with music settings for male choir. So, I’m learning a lot of male choir repertoire, which is not something I think that most women get the chance to immerse themselves in. Usually when you become a choir director in any capacity in the church, you’re pitching for mixed choir and learning how to sing with a mixed choir because that’s our tradition. But I’ve had this unique opportunity at seminary to be working with some profoundly historic male choir repertoire, which is very cool. I would love to continue to conduct male ensembles or use these ideas for different voicings for treble voices as well in the future.  

Before I came to seminary, I worked as a hired singer in different capacities. I’ve been a part of different sacred music projects across the board, but also opera chorus work, jazz ensembles, folk groups, children choir directing, recital work, etc… all sorts of things. Over the past five years I’ve been able to sing with the different professional Orthodox choirs that we have here in the U.S.  I’ve been on four or five different recordings with these groups — PaTRAM, the Saint Tikhon Choir, and so on. Just recently I sang with the newly formed Artefact Ensemble and directed the first piece of the beginning of the Rachmaninoff Vigil during our first major concert.  I never thought I’d be taking my first bow as a conductor and not just as a singer before the throne of God, but there I was!  So there are a few different activities I’m currently involved with.

Although, I’ve always considered myself a singer; I went to seminary because I wanted to get more of a theological basis for how we understand music in the church, liturgics, and the importance of beauty in the world. And in that process, I’ve actually started to grow more towards conducting. I have this opportunity to train under mentors like Benedict Sheehan for this, and to get exposure to the breadth of our Orthodox liturgical music tradition on a larger scale, while also getting the rubrical knowledge I need for my seminary training. 

The bulk of the academic work that I’m doing here from my classes independently is based on the theology of beauty. My vocation is directly related to the liturgical music of the church, and that has brought a greater awareness of how our understanding of beauty really is unique as Orthodox Christians. Then the question becomes, how do we create spaces where we can participate in that beauty more? These are the questions I’m wrestling with right now.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I just called what I do a “vocation”, and a vocation is a calling. It is a pull. I think of what I do as a church musician in terms of the greater framework of what it really means to live an anaphoric life — a life that is offered up to God.  When I’m involved with the concert projects I participate in, and all of us are singing at a very high level of quality, and we are also singing the music of our church, which is a product of the composer’s own faith,  full of the radiant beauty of Christ,  and then you  take this music and  bring it to the  Divine Liturgy — then, and really then are you truly offering yourself up in a type of anaphoric movement. And every single human being has this capacity. I’m not saying that you have to go into iconography just because you’re an artist. But every person that is granted the skill set to create good work of art at a high level can lift these gifts back to God in their own way. Recently, I saw a short comic strip with a real theme of Orthodoxy, done in the style of a graphic novel. It was entirely edifying and refreshing to see a new medium being used to communicate the truths of the spiritual life. But I guess for myself personally, I feel indebted to use the skills I’ve learned and give them back to God at the highest level I possibly can, which originated for me,  in choral music. And that approach has blessed me immensely in my life.

How did music draw you in initially?

My family told me I sang before I spoke, and I distinctly remember putting on my father’s headphones and blasting some classical music while conducting the walls of our small apartment as a child.  Music is a part of being an Insignares. All of my family members play instruments, especially the guitar,  and I don’t think there is a single Insignares that doesn’t, you could say it is in our blood.  At family gatherings we sit around all afternoon into the evening and play music. My grandfather of blessed memory had a beautiful tenor voice, and we still have recordings which the whole family treasures. 

But practically speaking, I was an undergrad music student at College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, which had a great choral program. My conductor, had a very close relationship with Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt of Westminster Choir College. Dr. Flummerfelt would always come to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival, and he conducted one of the semi-professional choirs that I sang with in Charleston just a few months before he passed away. So there’s a bit of a connection there. 

The first time I walked into an Orthodox Church, it just so happened that it was Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant, SC, where Benedict was the director at the time. He knew me from a previous house gathering and he came over and said, “You’re a music major, right?” I said yes, and he said, “Ok, I need more altos.” So, I went up to the analogion, the first time in an Orthodox church mind you, and it was so, so different from any other choral liturgical experience I’d ever had. I remember going home and listening to the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete , listening to the kontakion over and over again. I realized that this beauty exists specifically in this time, and it comes back every year. That is, if you want to hear this kontakion sung, you have to be there, the first week of Lent. Sure, there are other times when the Canon gets sung later during Lent, but it’s not an experience you can just buy or hear at a concert hall. It gave me this idea of a sacred sound space that happens in the church during certain times of the year — like on Christmas vigil, with the big “God Is With Us”. These are moments that you can’t really replicate. They are unique soundscapes. They happen in one time, in one space and then you have to wait almost an entire season for them to come back again. 

I’m a direct product of inviting non-Orthodox singers into the church choir and it being accidental evangelism!  I’m a definite supporter of the idea that we need to have good singers come, that we need to have trained musicians come and sing in our choirs. Beauty will attract people who value beauty. If you have beautiful church music at your church, if you have beautiful iconography, if you take the time to make a beautiful building with beautiful architecture, if you yourself are a beautiful person through your hospitality to a stranger, people will not be able to keep themselves away.

I’m a daughter of immigrants. My family is from Colombia, South America, but also from Italy and Ireland. But even with the immigrant’s mentality of survival, my grandmother would never just, you know, put a plate of food in front of you; it would be put in a nice bowl, with a plate underneath, with a napkin, and she’d make it a certain way. And maybe she would give you bread, or pour you a glass of wine — there was a way that Sunday dinner was done, almost as a liturgical procession.  It is a type of ‘holy time’ that goes beyond the utility of it. Along those lines, I believe that human beings, when we truly love something, we will ornament it — but, as a monk  once told me, it’s not just about the dress, signifying the ornament; you have to have the lady in the dress, signifying the spiritual reality, the service. We have our faith, we have the Divine Liturgy, and as liturgical artists, we’re the seamstresses making the wedding dress, adorning the bride of Christ with our hymnody, skills, energy, and craft. The learning of this craft has to be done in a place where others are already focusing on it. I’m developing my technique as a choir director and as a singer of our tradition, but all that technique, all the purpose of the beauty of  the  art, is to adorn the Divine Liturgy. If we truly love God, then we will want to put energy towards making our worship of Him truly magnificent. 

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

I’m looking forward to going to the International Society for Orthodox Church Music Pan-Orthodox Symposium at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in June. Then I’m spending three months at St. Seraphim of Sarov in Santa Rosa with Father Lawrence Margitich. And also, I hope to see Fr. Stephan Meholick and other priests who have definitely created a musical culture in their parishes. And so that’s sort of what I’m doing now. I also spent last summer directing the choir at St. Innocent of Alaska Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska. In May at St. Tikhon’s, we have the annual Memorial Day Pilgrimage, and I’ll sing the Durufle Requiem  and  Kastalsky’s Memory Eternal, with the Saint Tikhon Choir.

What are some projects that you want to work on that one’s asked you to do yet?

Like I said, the academic work that I’m doing at St. Tikhon’s is focused on trying to illuminate the issues surrounding beauty, and to do so in a very accessible way. These issues have not been written about as much as I’d like to read  in Orthodox circles, and I think it is really vital to the way that the Church understands people in my particular vocation.  Moreover,  if our society is enamored with utility,  then it is  all the more important that we have people talking about the importance of beauty, why it is essential to us. Dr. Timothy Patitsas, a professor at Holy Cross, and now interim dean,  just published his book Ethics of Beauty, and I’m really excited to read it. I’d like to work out some of my own ideas within the framework he’s already developed. I hope it can foster more conversation about this topic.

What is your sense of the big picture in terms of the current landscape of Orthodox music in America?

To go back to something I said earlier, I like the word vocation because it implies that it’s not only me. It’s not just my own ambition. The idea of a vocation is that sometimes it may be something that you never thought of that you were going to do, but you’re being undeniably pulled by God in a certain direction. It becomes a reality for you. And, if the direction is from God, then the Church needs to be able to equip the people being pulled in that direction to do it well. All too often I see Orthodox Christians who are excellent musicians, but the church culture that we have is not supporting them to do their art at an appropriate level, or we don’t have the right educational opportunities for them to be able to do it properly.

We have young men who are called to the priesthood, and so we have the seminary; by having the institution and the space, it shows that there is a value there, and of course, we want there to be more priests, deacons, and readers! I think we also need to take energy and resources to direct those that are called in different ways. There should be more spaces for liturgical artists of all types to connect and receive education. 

And so, we absolutely are pulled by God to serve. Take choir directors — they’re tirelessly conducting, scheduling rehearsals, and singing all of the services of Holy Week, as a part of their parish music ministry, for just one example. That’s absolutely a vocation, it’s not just like a nice volunteer gig that you have! It is really necessary for the life of the Church, and we should be encouraging people that know how to do these things well to do them. We need to to encourage people to to bring their gifts to the altar, and not to shoo them away from it. 

When I was living in D.C., I had a conversation with my priest, where I asked for a blessing to have a non-Orthodox church job, because I couldn’t afford to live reasonably otherwise. It is the norm for singers on a certain level to have a church job, and I was frequently called upon by my singer friends in the city for jobs. But anyhow, I promised my priest to sing at church for weekday Liturgies, Vespers, and extra services outside of Sunday. He gave me his blessing, but that’s a loss for Orthodox parishes when people have to make that kind of choice. It becomes sort of a little bit of a conflict for those of us who want to give our gifts back to God in the Church, but also want to be valued for what we do.   If a painter does iconography for free, it takes away from the livelihood that supports that artist. Some people would want to do that, of course; there are people that absolutely see that volunteering as a type of offering. I know choir directors that are able to make a living at another job, and they want to be the choir director at their church and they’ll do it for free; that’s fine.  But I think we need to encourage people to be full-time liturgical artists in the Church and then also to provide them pathways to do that.

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.