Upham's Corner Online

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral Church Music and Choir

The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Boston is beautiful and the church services, mysterious.   Bearing no resemblance to the churches from my past, what attracted me was the music,  the role of the choir in the liturgy and the people.

Visiting Annunciation Cathedral

Annunciation Cathedral is within walking distance of Ruggles Station, adjacent to the Wentworth Campus.  It was built in 1923 and serves as the Seat of the Diocese of Boston for the Greek Orthodox Church.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral

On my first visit a couple weeks ago, I entered the church having only known services from the Protestant churches of my past - Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran and Congregational - some with services "higher" than others.  At Annunciation, 90% of the service was in Greek, so the usual words of comfort, clarity, spirituality and repetition were missing.  Even the ceremony and ritual, so different from my own experiences, remained a mystery. 

The church pews were well-stocked with the "Divine Liturgy Hymnal" but I felt like I was in a confounding Easter egg hunt.  Attempting to follow the service using the Hymnal was like finding one egg, then getting lost while looking for the next.  I don't understand Greek and when I did find the music in the Hymnal, it didn't match what the choir was singing. 

Yet, after a while, the music took on a familiar tone as if I had heard it many times before.  It raised my spirits and soothed my soul and soon I proclaimed to my companion, "I have died and gone to heaven."

Following the service, I headed straight over to the choir, complimenting them effusively.  I wanted to know more.  Why was the hymnal music so different from what the choir was singing?  The answer I got left me awestruck.  The choir director, Constantine (Dean) Limberakis, wrote his own arrangement of the liturgical music. "After all," he said, "this is the Greek Cathedral." Mr. Limberakis said I was welcome to join the choir. 

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Choir Director, Deane Limberakis
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Organist Roberto Poli

Role of the Choir

In the Christian churches (Protestant) in which I have served as musician, the liturgy is structured around the spoken word.  By comparison, Greek Orthodox liturgy is structured around the sung word as chanted by the priests and chanters and as sung by the liturgical choir. 

Over the centuries of change in the Christian church, the movement away from sung to spoken word has helped relegate the choir to a lesser role.  If three hymns and one anthem are sung at three minutes each, the choir has 12 minutes in a one hour service.  In some churches, a bit of "service music" remains.

The liturgical choir at a Greek Orthodox Church has a unique position as one of the three voices carrying out the service - priests, chanters and choir.  As a result, they sing almost the entire two-hour service, standing. 

From the Vantage of the Choir Stalls

On March 23, I arrived to sing with the choir.  Soon outfitted with a robe, I made my way upstairs to the choir stalls.  "You will be sitting in the back," I was told.  There I was welcomed by two of the most gracious sopranos, Chris to my left and Fay, to my right.  Both cared for my experience, making sure I had the correct page open of the many supplementary music sections included in the day's liturgy.

Choir Director, Dean, a truly enjoyable character, has been directing the choir for so long he has the liturgy memorized and says it aloud as if talking to himself.  Becoming one with the words of the priest, he prepares himself to direct both the organist and the choir to begin singing at precisely the right moment. 

Unlike directing a planned program where the music is listed and followed exactly, Dean has to listen to what the priest is saying to determine what music will be sung next.  Most of it is predictable but not all. Sometimes the priest skips a portion of the liturgy or adds a new section so Dean has to make ad hoc decisions on what will be sung next and where to find it.  Most of the singing is in Greek; some of it is in English.  When the language changes, Dean holds up a sign to let the choir know: English or Greek.


I look forward to a new set of experiences that bring me full circle to a time when I attended the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a child.  The language wasn't Greek but the ceremonies, rituals and incense were all the same. 

And now for the test of commitment.  Holy Week begins Palm Sunday, April 13 and lasts the entire week. Not just a Sunday morning "gig," Holy Week is full-time.  The choir either sings or rehearses every day of that week through April 20, Easter. 

The question is:  Can I do it?

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral
514 Parker Street
Boston, MA, 02120


Posted: March 26, 2014     Nancy J Conrad

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