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Mystic Chords

The gospel according to the Arvo Pärt Project

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By CATHERINE P. LEWIS
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The influence of Eastern Orthodox Christianity on composer Arvo Pärt’s music is undisputed: His minimalistic music draws from obvious religious inspiration. The specifics are less straightforward, though, leaving his compositions feeling more abstractly spiritual than overtly doctrinal. Despite the particulars of his own religion, his work has a nearly universal appeal. According to the Bachtrack guide, his music is the most performed of any living composer. 

Arvo Pärt at the Met (2014)

Arvo Pärt at the Met (2014)

The newly formed Arvo Pärt Project seeks to analyze the relationship between Orthodox theology and Pärt’s body of work. Founded by two faculty members at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, the project is surprising only in its timing: The 78-year-old Pärt has been a prominent composer for decades, so it’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been such a formal study of his religious influences before now.

This academic collaboration is ongoing, with publications still to come, but the most public portion of the project so far was a series of concerts and lectures in Washington and New York in late May and early June. These performances featured all--Estonian musicians-—-the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir-—-and were attended by Pärt himself. There were intimate performances at the Phillips Collection in Washington and at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as panel discussions at George Washington University and the Met. But the largest and most majestic concerts of Pärt’s visit to the East Coast were at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at Caregie Hall in New York (which marked Pärt’s first appearance in New York since 1984).

These two performances followed a similar program. Both started with the violin-led Fratres (1977) and ended with the choral Te Deum (1984-1985), and both featured Adam’s Lament (2009) and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977). The order of the intermediate songs differed in the two performances, and the Carnegie Hall concert also included Salve Regina (2001), with a celesta joining the choir and string orchestra. But both programs were laid out smartly, with some of Pärt’s newer pieces bookended by his most famous and recognizable compositions.

Only a few days apart, the performances had some minor sonic differences: Lead violin Harry Traksmann seemed a bit shaky at the start of Fratres at Carnegie Hall, but the choir blended more cohesively in New York than in Washington. Overall, though, the Arvo Pärt Project’s focus on the composer’s religion was clear, most especially with the mournful Adam’s Lament, whose Russian text shows the fall of Adam as symbolic of the suffering of mankind and includes a final prayer for mercy and humility. The show-closing Te Deum was haunting in its simplicity, with chants and choral echoes raising up the humblest of prayers.

By far, though, the most surprising choice for these performances, given the theological focus of the project, was the secular Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Featuring Pärt’s characteristic tintinnabuli style, the song follows staggered descending A-minor scales, somehow managing to suspend the passing of time during its final resolution. The song’s inspiration isn’t religious, but its delivery almost certainly is. It offers a glimmer of hope in the form of a subtle bell overtone that faintly hints at a major chord after the somber tone of the rest of the song has died down. Pärt wrote the song upon the death of Britten, and its juxtaposition in this otherwise religious program was striking. Grief followed by hope, suffering followed by redemption: The song’s sonic arc suggests a spiritual path even though its inspiration seems secular on the surface.

Arvo Pärt did not perform or conduct during the concerts, and he was only onstage to bow and to acknowledge the musicians after each performance. He didn’t speak at all, but he did manage a wink of humor: After thunderous applause brought him back onstage to bow again and again at Carnegie Hall, he placed his palms together under his tilted head, signaling to the audience that enough was enough. Time for bed. 

Catherine P. Lewis founded and maintains the concert calendar ShowlistDC

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