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The Myrrhbearers: A Unique Female Choir In the Russian Diaspora

The Holy Myrrhbearers Women’s Choir, under the direction of Eugenia Temidis, is a rare phenomenon in the Russian diaspora. Women’s choirs usually form in convents; a lay women’s choir has never existed in the Russian emigration.

The founder and musical director of this choir is Eugenia Temidis. Since childhood, she listened to the choir led by her grandfather, Georgii Ivanovich Samoilovich, learning Church Slavonic, reading and singing on the kliros in her parish in Nyack, NY, and participated in school choruses. She sang in her university choir under the direction of organist Lester Berenbroick.

For over 10 years, she sang with the Russian Choral Society first under Vladimir Roudenko, later Alexander Ledkovsky, Vladimir Morosan and Nikolai Kachanov, which performed in New York’s finest venues: Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and the New York Philharmonic. 
Eugenia now sings in the Synodal Cathedral Choir, directs the Myrrhbearer’s Choir, teaches young singers (including her own five children) and continues studying her craft in a conservatory.

— Eugenia, what gave you the idea of forming a women’s choir? 

— Twelve years ago it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to gather female singers to sing the divine services on the feast day of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack. At first we only sang selected prayers, and invited women singers from other parishes. Seven years later we sang the entire service to the Protectresses of the parish sisterhood, and began giving concerts during parish celebrations: weddings, baptisms…

In 2001, we had the honor of performing at the banquet honoring the newly-elected First Hierarch of the Church Abroad, Metropolitan Laurus. At that time we received a blessing to be a diocesan ensemble of the Diocese of Eastern America and New York of ROCOR.  

This year we sang all-night vigil and Divine Liturgy at Our Lady of Kazan Church in Newark, at which His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of ROCOR, officiated.

— Who sings in your choir? 

— The choir was formed by women for women, not by professionals but by amateur singers of liturgical music. Among the singers are university professors, financiers, teachers, a doctor, four church choir directors… Mainly they are from New York State, some live in New Jersey, Philadelphia, PA, and Connecticut.

Generally they are Russian Americans. There are English-language singers from the Orthodox Church in America who are interested in singing Church-Slavonic music. The youngest singer in my group is one of my daughters.

 The roster of singers changes from time to time: young people go away to college, others leave to tend to their children or aging parents, and then return to sing with us again, and new singers join. The core of the choir consists of 12 singers which have been dedicated singers from its birth to this day.  

— What does your repertory consist of?

— First of all, we don’t sing folk songs or lay music. Included in our work are the ancient monastic compositions of Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra, Pochaev Lavra, Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra, and we sing the works of such famous composers as Chesnokov, Gardner, Trubachev, Ledkovsky and Kedrov.  

Our choir’s rich repertory also includes little-known spiritual chants and carols of the 17th and 18th centuries. A concert we gave at the Synodal Cathedral in New York included the first rendering of unknown spiritual songs of St Dimitry of Rostov. Twelve years ago, when we first began, there were no existing repertories for women’s choirs, and almost prepared almost all the arrangements myself. With the resurrection of the art of spiritual music in Russia and the spread of the internet, we can use arrangements from convents in Russia, the Holy Land and other countries. Still, we want to establish personal connections with convents throughout the world.  

— Have you tried to sing for American audiences, too?

— Yes, we give concerts both in Orthodox churches and for Russian and American lay audiences. We performed in the renowned West Point Military Academy, New Jersey Cultural Center, at benefit concerts in various cities, and always try to accommodate those who are interested in liturgical choral music no matter what nationality they are.

For non-Orthodox or non-churchgoing audiences, these are not simply concerts but a form of missionary work. We prepare commentaries for our programs, and include translations of texts into English, explaining the various prayers and liturgical actions to which they relate, and give biographies of composers. So listeners not only gain pleasure from the singing itself but they also learn the basics of Orthodoxy.

— Does it matter to you what kind of church you sing in?

— Of course, good acoustics are very important. It makes it easier to sing, and the voices sound better. I remember how graciously the Serbs greeted us at St Savva Cathedral. At one time the church was Protestant, and it was built according to different canons, and the floor was cold, so we stood on rugs, but the acoustics in the church are stunning.

   
In West Point, too, we sang in a Protestant chapel with phenomenal acoustics. But we are accustomed to singing in small churches. The main thing is for people to enjoy listening to our music. 

— Are there places you would still like to sing in? 

— We would like to sing in St John of Shanghai’s cathedral in San Francisco, the Montreal cathedral, St Nicholas Cathedral in Manhattan, the main church of Moscow in New York, in the Holy Land and in one of the convents of Russia, though I don’t yet know which. I don’t want to guess… 

The singing of the Myrrhbearers Choir can be heard on the Orthodox internet radio station www.ancientfaithradio.com 

Tatiana Veselkina
New York