This article was originally published in the September 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
It’s Sunday morning and Andrew Skitko rushes up the 24 coral-collared steps to Assumption of Virgin Mary Byzantine Catholic Church on Grand Street in Trenton.
As he has done since 2009, the 6-foot tall Skitko heads to a music stand near the edge of the balcony-like area, sets a bottle of water in place on a nearby table, pages through the Typikon — the Byzantine liturgical guidebook — and then quietly waits to begin the singing of the ancient liturgy.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say he looks like he’s a stage performer ready to make an entrance.
Skitko, 27, is a member of Opera Philadelphia Chorus, Philadelphia Symphonic Choir with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Same Stream Choir — a Philadelphia-area group that sings works by 21st-century composers. He also teaches and is the founder and artistic director of Theoria Chamber Choir, which focuses on the performance of Slavic choral repertoire.
And when he attended Westminster Choir College, he participated in concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kimmel Center.
Yet he is just one of the many trained voices providing service to Trenton congregations — where there is no cost to enter.
“I only briefly had a double major in sacred music at Westminster,” he says. “I completed my B.M. and M.M. in vocal performance, which was very focused on art song and opera. I was always in auditioned choirs, so the choral tradition and sacred music was a large part of my music training at Westminster. While I have a deep appreciation for sacred music and the rich variety of sacred musical repertoire in all religious traditions, I came to find that I wanted to pursue studies in solo vocal performance.”
About his path to this specialized type of singing, Skitko says, “I grew up in the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church, which is how I became a cantor and choir director in this tradition.
“We have had many singers in my family. Coming from a Carpatho-Rusyn American family, music has always been a part of our culture. Many members of my family were singers in the Hazleton (Pennsylvania) Byzantine Churches, and the Carpathian Male Choir, for example. There is a saying in Rusyn: ‘Sing, because it’s good for your soul!’”
But it was more than just singing that attracted him. “I’ve been seriously involved with vocal music since sophomore year of high school but was in band and took piano lessons since I was very young. I also play the clarinet, saxophone, and accordion.”
Skitko grew up in Pennsylvania, first in Oley Valley, a cow town, then in Pottstown. His Rusyn-American father (a former university professor) and his Welsh/Irish/German mother (a former journalist) work at the Hill School in Pottstown.
He says his connection to this region began when he came to Westminster. “I knew the moment I stepped on Westminster Choir College’s campus in Princeton that I wanted to attend that school. In fact, it was the only college to which I applied — that’s how certain I was that I wanted to pursue music there. It’s an incredible college that is unlike any other music school in the world for vocal and choral music.” He calls himself “incredibly fortunate” to have a family that never discouraged him from pursuing music.
It was during his time in Princeton that he learned about Trenton’s Byzantine church. “The Byzantine Catholic church is definitely a small world, so when one person found out I was studying at Westminster Choir College, the word eventually spread to the church in Trenton. I was offered a position and began cantoring there in 2009 while in my first year of undergraduate studies.”
About his personal connection to the music, Skitko says, “I’m very fond of some of the liturgical hymns because they instantly remind me of growing up singing them next to my grandfather in church. He’s very much the reason I sing as a cantor now. Regardless of the piece of music, if I am able to sing the harmony with others rather than the melody, that is what is most special to me; simple harmonization of Carpatho-Rusyn chant can be very moving when done authentically.”
Skitko says the chanting in Eastern churches changes with the regions. “If we’re talking about chant in the Rusyn/Ruthenian church, called ‘prostopinije,’ it’s entirely unique to those areas of the Carpathians.
“However, when you look at the choral music that has traditionally been used in Eastern churches (both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic), you see the influence of Western music on those composers (for example, many choral composers from Ukraine and Russia studied music in Italy, which heavily influenced what we use today with our choirs).
“Our tradition has a very rich history from Eastern Europe, which has beautifully symbolic traditions and a unique musical repertoire. Many people know Slavic choral works like the ‘Rachmaninoff Vespers,’ but there is so, so much more than that, including living composers.”
Skitko calls the chanting of non-song portions of the liturgy “recitando” — or a reciting style. And while there is a traditional approach to the sound, it also provides room for varying the inflection during readings, says Skitko.
No matter what the inflection or the choices, Skitko says the singing is a vocal workout. “People don’t realize our church does not use organ or any instruments; the entire service is sung a cappella. You have to have a strong voice and good vocal stamina to do that, whether leading the congregation as a cantor or as a singer in a choir. When I formed the Theoria Chamber Choir to do full a cappella choral liturgies, my professional-level singers, none of whom are from an Eastern rite church, often remark on just how much music and singing it really is — but they also comment on the unique music and beautiful tradition.”
No longer living in the Trenton-Princeton area, Skitko says church singing has its challenges. “I currently live and teach in Pottstown. With two services in Trenton per week, I’m driving roughly 12,500 miles a year — not including my travel to work in Philadelphia with the opera and orchestra choirs.”
Skitko is a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists and sings at other Byzantine Churches, including his home parish in Pottstown and in Mont Clare, Pennsylvania. “I plan to pursue a career as an opera singer,” he says. “I still take two, sometimes three voice lessons a week in order to continue along that path. I trained as a baritone at university, however I have been working on transitioning to tenor, which is a lot of work and takes time. As long as music and the arts are a part of my future, I will be happy, regardless of the level I can reach.
“Anyone who pursues degrees in the arts knows there are no guarantees for the future, which is definitely a challenge. However, for many of my friends and colleagues, a life in the arts is a true ‘calling,’ and refusing to embrace a calling means you’re never fulfilled. I think the biggest challenge is having the patience, perseverance, and courage to pursue it.
“One of my favorite quotes is from Leonard Bernstein about Westminster Choir College, but I think it applies to the arts in general: ‘[Art] provides a great measure of beauty to a world that needs it badly.’ I plan to do my best to follow those words, whether that’s accomplished through opera, choral music, or teaching other singers. I plan to use my passion and calling for music as best I can in the world.”
Assumption of Virgin Mary Byzantine Catholic Church, Grand and Malone streets. Sunday liturgy, 10 a.m. www.avmbcc.org.