Something Nordic This Way Comes

Journey... fortune cookie
Today’s fortune: “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

Music of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — huzzah!  I couldn’t be more excited about this year’s Nordic Christmas Revels as I anticipate the first meeting of our adult chorus this evening.  Each year we select a new theme, begin our planning, and then hold auditions in May to select the adult chorus for our December production.  After the “casting” is complete, we join for one rehearsal in June to meet, greet, and sing together for the first time.

So, when I opened my fortune cookie today at lunch, I found the message to be particularly meaningful: “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

As music director, this is a pretty special night for me — I get to hear the nascent sound that I have the privilege of shaping and refining for this year’s Christmas Revels.  I usually select a few songs from the show to try out with the group, and we rehearse them together.  While I am working, Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre is watching, the costumers are measuring, and many other details are starting to fall into place behind the scenes.  Many, many things will happen over the summer, and then we will really begin the journey in September.

There are more auditions to come, so our “circle” is not quite complete — we audition teenagers and children in September — but, tonight is when it all starts to become real for me.  The “journey” to the Northlands begins with tonight’s “single step.”



Greek and Bulgarian Salon Concerts

Lyuti Chushki plays as concertgoers dance.
Lyuti Chushki plays as concertgoers dance.  Photo by Margaret Loomis.

Twice over the last week the performance space at Washington Revels was filled with dance and exciting music. Friday night, the music was Greek; last night, it was music from Bulgaria.

The salon concerts are a chance for tradition-bearers in this year’s Christmas Revels to share a bit more of their music than they’ll get to play on our stage in December.

Last night, Tzvety Weiner, who has been valiantly teaching us Bulgarian songs all fall, joined her husband Bryndyn Weiner and her parents, Tanya Dosseva and Lyuben Dossev, to perform several songs (in this configuration, they are “Dossevi”).

Dossevi (with Bryndyn Wiener) performing at the Washington Revels Office
Dossevi (with Bryndyn Wiener) performing at the Washington Revels Office. Photo by Margaret Loomis.

Tzvety gives off an aura of good humor, and now that I have seen her mother, I can report that it’s inherited. Seeing the two of them singing together was a delight. After one particularly silly song–you didn’t have to understand Bulgarian to know that this song was funny–Tzvety announced that we’d witnessed a real accomplishment: the two of them getting through it without cracking up. Lyuben Dossev is a celebrated player of the kaval, a wooden shepherd’s flute, and this was the first time he and Tzvety had performed together–a real treat for us.

After a reception, the second half of the evening was about dancing. The band Lyuti Chushki, which includes Tzvety, played boisterous Bulgarian tunes while concert-goers joined hands and danced. Numbers varied a lot–on simpler dances, dozens of people were up and moving through the steps with varying levels of competence; in one dance, about half a dozen more experienced dancers sprang around the room.

Spyros Koliavasilis and Karpouzi Trio playing a Salon Concert on November 15, 2013.
Spyros Koliavasilis and Karpouzi Trio playing a Salon Concert on November 15, 2013. Photo by Greg Scholtz.

Last Friday, Spyros Koliavasilis and the Karpouzi Trio (Spyros with Len Newman and Margaret Loomis) gave a wonderful concert of Greek music, highlighting traditions from Asia Minor (most notably on the oud and kemane) as well as music from the Greek islands. Spyros plays and teaches 19 instruments and specializes in the authentic practice of traditional music spanning all of Greece.

We heard music played in many different modes. Much of the music was “microtonal”–music that contains intervals smaller than the conventional contemporary Western semitone (our 12-tone equal temperament). It was truly amazing! Margaret plays the santouri, a giant Greek dulcimer with a delightful sound, and her hammers were flying as she played this fascinating music. Len plays the laouto, a Greek version of the lute; that name comes from the Arabic word oud, meaning “wood.” The sound box of the Greek laouto is unusually large and creates a very resonant sound.

We’re all looking forward to hearing much more from these groups over the coming weeks.

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

Dancing (and singing) children

Children dancing
The Christmas Revels children’s chorus learning the “podaraki” dance from tradition-bearer Olga Vonikaki.

This year, the children will not only sing in Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, Croatian, and English… but they will also dance! Our children’s directors Kat Toton and Jenni Voorhees (along with children’s stage manager, Emilie Moore) couldn’t do all of this without help from our amazing specialists and tradition-bearers.

Last Wednesday, the kids had a visit from Olga Vonikaki who taught them the Greek podaraki dance, and I was lucky enough to get to watch the process.  The children worked hard (and had lots of fun) learning the new dance–one of three that they will perform in the show.  During previous rehearsals, Larry Weiner (another of this year’s tradition-bearers) taught the children two other dances for the show.

Olga is the perfect teacher for our Washington Revels kids.  She was born in Kavala, Greece, where she studied Greek dancing and performed with many groups across the country. Since moving to the the US more than twenty years ago, she has been teaching Greek traditional dancing, specializing in leading children’s dance groups, one of which won the silver prize at the East Coast Greek Youth Competition.

Our Christmas Revels children range in age from 8-11, and come from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.  Each year in September, we select about 14-16 from the total of 60+ who audition. And, in addition to selecting children for The Christmas Revels, we also select 25 additional children for our May Revels chorus.  The kids begin rehearsing in mid-September on Wednesday afternoons and join the Adult and Teen choruses during one weekend rehearsal in October, and another in November.  Soon after that, in December, everyone will be together each and every night for an entire week.

These kids are looking and sounding great already… and soon they will be fully costumed by Cecily Pilzer (their own costume designer)!  The children usually “steal the show” each year, and this one will likely be no exception.

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

May Day! May Day!

The Foggy Bottom Morris Men bringing in the May (May 1, 2012)
The Foggy Bottom Morris Men bringing in the May (May 1, 2012). Photo by Elizabeth Miller.

Happy May 1st to all… how have you spent your May Day so far?  I was lucky enough to get up at 6:00 am, travel down the street to the Takoma Park Gazebo, and watch three morris teams do their very best to “bring in the  May.”  It was raining, but this did not prevent some very spirited dancing and waving of hankies (as shown on the right).  And, it seems that what they did this morning really worked!  The sun is now shining and the temperature is rising.

On hand were the Foggy Bottom Morris Men, the Rock Creek Morris Women, and the Arlington Northwest Morris (recently featured as part of our “Madrigals, Morris, and Maypole” event at the National Arboretum last Saturday).

Many other Washington Revels friends were playing in the band (Charlie Pilzer, Jennifer Cutting, Alan Peel, Jim Besser, and more… ) and many others (like me) were cheering on the dancing.  I held my umbrella in one hand, and Arlo’s dog leash in the other and just enjoyed the fun.

Since Jennifer Cutting and I both work at the Library of Congress, I wanted to share a link to a wonderful video (with lots of interesting links for more information) entitled, Bringing in the May, featuring Jennifer, who is a specialist at the American Folklife Center.  Check it out!

The Rock Creek Morris Women bringing in the May (May 1, 2012) at the Takoma Park Gazebo.
The Rock Creek Morris Women bringing in the May (May 1, 2012) at the Takoma Park Gazebo. Photo by Elizabeth Miller.

And, if you are interested in more May rituals and merriment… come and see the Washington Revels performing at the National Cathedral Flower Mart this Saturday (May 5, 2012).  Our show will run from Noon to 1:00pm, will feature some great May music (with a musical surprise… so you have to come to experience that), a mummer’s play,  and the wonderful Revels children, tweens and teens.  We will process to the front steps of the National Cathedral, crown our May Queen, sings songs and rounds (including audience participation) and after the show, we will process to the Maypole for some dancing!  Learn more about our May Revels at:


Happy President’s Day – Celebrating Lincoln and Liberty at Ford’s Theatre

Hurrah for the choice of the nation!  Our chieftan so brave and so true;
We’ll go for the great Reformation — For Lincoln and liberty too!

“Lincoln and Liberty,” 1860

Washington Revels Heritage Voices at Ford's Theatre
Alden Michels leads "The Vacant Chair" as Washington Revels Heritage Voices and the Roustabout Old Time String Band perform at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Terry Winslow.

The echoes of this campaign song, made famous by songster and abolitionist Jessie Hutchinson, rang the rafters as the Washington Revels Heritage Voices and the Roustabout Old Time String Band helped celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday Open House at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on February 12. The Heritage Voices appeared as part of a daylong celebration honoring the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln and the grand opening of the Theatre’s new Center for Education and Leadership, slated to open later this month.

It was the experience of a lifetime.

Being able to sing this historic and poignant music while reading the words of men and women who lived during the Civil War is one thing, but presenting it in a place so imbued with Abraham Lincoln’s presenceand the history of that fateful night in April 1865is another.

Heritage Voices performing at Ford's Theatre
Heritage Voices (Jim Harkless, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Gregory McGruder, and Helen Fields pictured in the foreground) perform "The President's Hymn" at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Terry Winslow.

Over this past yearbeginning with performances in the Fall of 2010 and a CD recording featuring music of the American Civil War, “Hard Times Come Again No MoreWashington Revels Heritage Voices have performed in many historic sites throughout the metropolitan Washington area.  The group presents a wide variety of music from the era, including African American traditional music and spirituals, as well as narration and readings from primary source materials dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.

“Music has done its share, and more than its share, in winning this war.”
— Union General Philip Sheridan

Happy 194th Birthday, Frederick Douglass!

The Washington Revels Jubilee Voices, including Andrea Blackford, left, sing "Oh Freedom" at the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site's 194th celebration of Douglass's birth. The event was held in a tent on the grounds of the historic Douglass home in Southeast Washington.
The Washington Revels Jubilee Voices, including Andrea Blackford, left, sing "Oh Freedom" at the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site's 194th celebration of Douglass' birth. The event was held in a tent on the grounds of the historic Douglass home in Southeast Washington. Photo by Sonya Doctorian, The Washington Post

February is another month of holidays–Valentine’s Day, and of course, Presidents Day, which celebrates the birthdays of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  But there is another famous birthday in February–that of the former slave, orator, and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.  In fact, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which originated what was once called “Negro History Week,”  chose the second week  of February in 1926 for the observance in order to honor the birthdays of  Lincoln and Douglass. (In 1976, “Negro History Week” was expanded to become what we know as “Black History Month”).

Saturday, February 11th, 2012 was a celebration of the 194th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth, and the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices marked that occasion with a performance at his former estate, Cedar Hill, in Southeast Washington.  The group shared songs, stories, and readings from Mr. Douglass’ time, including the stirring reading,  “Men of Color! To Arms!” an essay used to encourage African American men to join the Union Army.

The famous leader of the abolitionist movement died in February 1895 at age 77.  Born into slavery, Douglass escaped to spend his life fighting for justice and equality for all people. His tireless struggle, brilliant words, and inclusive vision of humanity continue to inspire and sustain people today.

The theme of this year’s event was “Abolition,” and featured programs on Frederick Douglass’ work, as well as the ongoing fight against slavery today. US Ambassador CdeBaca delivered the keynote address, and winners of the annual oratorical contest, open to students across the country, recited excerpts from a Frederick Douglass speech.

Learn more


Reaching for Peace

Washington Revels Jubilee Voices sing at Temple Shalom
Washington Revels Jubilee Voices sing at Temple Shalom as part of their annual MLK Commemoration Service. Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Friday the 13th is a date that’s usually reserved for pessimism and superstition.  Nothing could be further from the truth on Friday evening, January 13, when the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices shared in a warm, inspiring commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This community tradition, was held at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a diverse congregation that prides itself on its rich musical traditions and “music that makes community.”  The temple’s reknowned cantor, Lisa Levine, a dynamic composer, musician and vocalist, led the Jubilee Voices, the Wilson High School Choir, members of the TAP Camp of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Washington, DC, and the temple’s youth choir, adult choir and band in the world-beat style “Soulful Shabbat Ruach.”

Soulful Shabbat Ruach (CD recording featuring the music of Cantor Lisa Levine of Temple Shalom)
Soulful Shabbat Ruach (CD recording featuring the music of Cantor Lisa Levine of Temple Shalom)

The guest artists were also invited to share songs from their own repertoire.  The lyrics of one of the songs we performed, “Welcome Table,”  promises, “I’m gonna eat at the welcome table, some of these days.” This spiritual, like many others, moved from its traditional, church-based roots to become one of the famous “Freedom Songs” of the Civil Rights Movement. Sung at sit-ins, during marches, and often, as protestors were led to jail, these songs spread the message of the movement and its people. The enthusiastic audience at Temple Shalom sang along, continuing the tradition!

Our friendship with Cantor Lisa began early last year, just after recording the Washington Revels CD, Hard Times Come Again No More: American Music of the Civil War Era, produced by recording engineer Charlie Pilzer at Airshow Mastering.  Cantor Lisa, who was recording Soulful Shabbat Ruach at Airshow, was seeking gospel singers to sing on two songs on the album.  Charlie played the Jubilee Voices cuts from Hard Times for Cantor Lisa, and the rest was history, culminating last May when members of Jubilee Voices joined forces with Cantor Levine and the Temple Shalom choirs and bands to celebrate the release of Cantor Lisa’s CD last May.

Cantor Lisa’s lyrics for “Reaching for Peace,” one of the songs on Soulful Shabbat Ruach, sums up the life of Dr. King and gives us the charge for continuing his important work:

“Reaching for peace in our lives,  reaching for peace in our community,
Reaching for peace all around the world,  And let us say, ‘Amen! ‘”


Marking the Shortest Day of the Year

Winter Solstice Tree of Light
Winter Solstice Tree of Light (courtesy of

This post is a reprint of  “The Shortest Day” by Paddy Swanson (Artistic Director, Revels, Inc.). It was published on December 21, 2011 in the Revels Winter Newsletter.

In our own time the Winter Solstice is indissolubly linked with the festival of Christmas, though it was not always so. The myths of the festival are so deeply embedded within us that we no longer ask why we bring an evergreen into the house or decorate with candles or hang mistletoe. We take these things for granted as we plunge into the hectic preparations for Christmas and the New Year. Overall there is a heightened sense of something significant happening at a fixed point on the calendar. For some it is Christmas night, for others it is watching the ball drop in Times Square. The commercial frenzy of gift buying is fueled by references to holly and stars and carols and the streets are illuminated by strings of twinkling lights. Sometimes the blurring of images can distort the meaning of the event that is being celebrated.

Underneath it all the unifying event is the arrival of the shortest day of the year. Perhaps in response to some primal human anxiety our common ancestors marked out the shortest day as the turning point in the year’s cycle of warmth and plenty and cold and scarcity. Over history major feasts and celebrations have accumulated around this time, sacred and secular – Yule, Christmas, Saturnalia, Midwinter – over the years amassing volumes of literature, custom, ritual, music and dance. It is from this great bounty of compressed emotion and meaning that we find the core material for our shows. The Christmas Revels format includes sacred and secular traditions from a wide collection of cultures and presents them in the context of celebration of the shortest day of the year. One of Susan Cooper’s lines in a Revels mummers’ play presents the great mystery of life and death very simply. When the call goes out for a doctor to bring the dead hero back to life, a boy answers,

 There is no doctor can bring this man to life,
His dying was a mystery and did not come from strife. 

So let the blessed mistletoe about him,
and about him,
and about him go, 

And bring him back among us – so.

May you have a very merry Christmas and a happy Solstice and “Great joy to the new!”

Meet Melissa Carter

Melissa, Howard and the Guitarras Doradas in The Christmas Revels, Andalusian Treasures
Melissa, Howard and the Guitarras Doradas in The Christmas Revels, Andalusian Treasures. Photo by Sheppard Ferguson.

Melissa has been my assistant music director for The Christmas Revels for many years, but this year I have finally gotten her back on stage … playing guitar!   Because of the theme of the 2011 Andalusian Treasures show, we decided to form a large group of guitarists to play on several of the Spanish pieces.  Melissa expressed her interest in being on stage, the fabulous costume folks found her a gorgeous costume, and voila!  The group is called “Guitarras Doradas” and includes Melissa, Howard Bass, Bobby Gravitz, Jake Hendren, and William G.M. Hoffman (you can also catch Bobby and Bill in the mummer’s play).  Melissa brings her background of both guitar and early music to the show (she is a graduate from the College of Music at Florida State University with a degree in musicology with focus on Early Music).

So, to learn more about Melissa, here are some fun facts:

  1. She grew up in a haunted house (not sure where that was, so you will have to ask her).
  2. She has lived in Ankara, Turkey for three years as a child, and then near Catania, Sicily for three years when she was in her early 20’s.
  3. Her mother was Spanish — the family was from Oviedo in Asturias.  Her father is Welsh and English – and her branch of the Carter family is part of the Carters who were one of the “First Families of Virginia.”
  4. She has always been involved in the arts — she danced ballet for 8 years in childhood and adolescence and played the viola starting at age 9.  She began guitar at 10, and then switched from viola to violin!
  5. Over the years, she has had a love/hate relationship with the guitar.  Melissa says, “At age 11 I put my guitar under my bed for a year, certain I would never be able to REALLY play because I couldn’t make the chord changes in ‘Yesterday’ fast enough.  I pulled it back out at 12 and tried again.  I got it by the time I was 13.”
  6. By age 15, it was decided… she would learn classical guitar in time to pass an audition to college.
  7. Melissa also sang with various choirs in college, and had the thrill of singing Beethoven’s 9th with the Atlanta Symphony conducted by Robert Shaw.  However, after getting nodes on my vocal chords, she joined the Collegium Musicum and learned to play baroque recorder and krumhorn (and she still loves playing the krumhorn to this day).

Don’t miss this year’s fabulous guitarists… only five more performances remain.

Meet David Buchbut

David Buchbut playing the riq.  Photo courtesy of Layali El Andalus.
David Buchbut playing the riq. Photo courtesy of Layali El Andalus.

David is the third member of this year’s guest musical ensemble, Layali El Andalus (along with Rachid Halihal and Daphna Mor).  He is the group’s “beat keeper,” playing the riq, dumbek and frame drum. I would describe David as a “gentle giant” — bean-pole tall and thin with a warm smile and a quiet countenance.  But, when he picks up one of his percussion instruments, all of that changes.  In this year’s show you will hear David’s percussion beat strongly supporting the full company (of about 80 singers and instrumentalists) in pieces like “Seven Ways to Cook an Eggplant” and delicately bouncing along with the children’s chorus as they sing and play on stage.

In looking around for some basic facts about David, I found a wonderful article entitled “Mr. Tambourine Man,” by Dan Friedman.  Below is a terrific description of the instruments that David plays…

The tambourine, or “riq” as it’s called in Arabic, is actually, despite its Western connotations of preschool classrooms, a staple of classical Arabic music. Unlike kids or folk dancers who shake or clap it, classical musicians hold it vertically and still, at knee level.  Like the larger bongolike dumbek, there are three major categories of sound: the “dum” the “tak” and the “kat.” But on the riq,each note can be varied not only by the tension and pace of the hand or the number of fingers applied, but also by the amount of accompanying jingle, the tautness of the drum skin and the amount of resonance the player allows any given beat or sequence.

It has been an amazing lesson for me to watch and hear the many sounds that a skilled player can draw from this instrument.  David has also been warm and welcoming to chorus percussionists like Guen Spilsbury (who is playing his frame drum on a couple of pieces) and our “staff percussionist” and sound effect’s man, Don Spinelli.  And with five more performances remaining to this year’s Christmas Revels, you have many opportunities to come and hear him too!

Read more from this article at:
Learn more about Layali El Andalus at: