Arvo Pärt Festival review: Timeless and timely

Performances of leading contemporary composer's music bridge centuries and cultures

by JOHN PITMAN

Cappella Romana presented the first-ever festival in North America dedicated to the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt. The Estonian composer’s music is arguably the most performed of any living composer. It was a slight departure for Cappella Romana, best known for their performances of Byzantine, Russian and Greek Orthodox choral music.

The comprehensive festival in Portland gave audiences the chance to immerse themselves in many different aspects of Pärt’s music and his life. They featured a film, a lecture, and concerts of instrumental music as well as vocal works throughout the eight-day festival. I attended two of these concerts on the second weekend of this remarkable, and moving, celebration.

Cappella Romana sang music by Arvo Pärt at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Tom Emerson.

There is something about Pärt’s music that is at once powerful, yet also fragile, representing both extrovert and introvert. His music not only reflects the words of ancient texts, but also brings complex expression to the human experience. This is music that is both timeless and timely. One is able to become lost in the music, feeling as though they’ve entered a portal to a thousand years ago, and yet remain completely in touch with the current state of the world. Sunday’s concert at Reed College had this effect on me personally, with both vocal and instrumental pieces performed, but it was in Saturday’s performance at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on February 11 that I most intensely felt this phenomenon.

“Odes of Repentance”

Director Dr. Alexander Lingas did not present the music in the usual concert format, with applause expected between pieces, and an intermission, but in the form of a paraklesis, a service of prayer intended for the living. The absence of applause allowed the audience to focus intently on the music, which resonated beautifully throughout the cathedral. Pärt’s music was worthy of a space like this, as the “space” between notes and phrases is paramount to the composer’s unique voice. Much of Pärt’s music is based on his compositional principle which he called tintinnabuli (‘Little bells’), some of which is dependent on silence, but also on a reduction of materials to an essential level. That doesn’t mean the music is simplistic at all; it seems to invite the listener in so as to become a participant of sorts, rather than a passive observer, by focusing on the sounds as well as the space.

Most pieces were in Church Slavonic (the conservative Slavic language used by the Orthodox Church in many countries), but some were in English, including The Woman with the Alabaster Box, which relates the story of Jesus’ anointing of oil by a woman whom the other apostles shun. The tempo of the work is slow, which in some recorded performances can come across somewhat muddled. By comparison, Cappella Romana’s diction was so clear, I didn’t need to follow along with the English text, as one often does, even during works written in English.

Composer Arvo Pärt

Saturday’s performance was structured primarily around several movements from Kanon Pokajanen, which Pärt wrote for the 750th anniversary celebration (in 1998) of Cologne Cathedral. At times, the music was dark and brooding, with dissonance creating significant tension; other times, the music would shift to a major key, and the voices would soar from a hush to full voice, filling the space of St. Mary’s and seeming to bounce off of the glittering stained-glass windows. Alto Kerry McCarthy, who has been featured as a soloist in previous concerts, opened the performance with a voice that rang out with stunning clarity.

While the music played, I considered its source, written in the late 20th century by a composer who is still with us; a composer who grew up in Communist Estonia where his beliefs were frowned upon. I found myself sitting in an American Catholic church as Pärt’s Estonian Orthodox music washed over me, and I realized that perhaps the differences that seem so significant among we humans, aren’t as great as we perceive.

Festival Finale

Sunday’s concert took place at the comparatively more secular Kaul Auditorium at Reed College February 12, but that doesn’t mean that the spiritual essence of Arvo Pärt’s music wasn’t experienced. This time, Cappella Romana was accompanied by string players from Third Angle New Music. The concert opened with several recently-composed works, including Da pacem Domine, which was commissioned by early music director Jordi Savall for the victims of the Madrid bombings in 2004; and his Alleluia-Tropus of 2008, which had its U.S. premiere at that concert, and I could sense that the audience was excited about being a part of musical history.

Unlike Saturday’s concert of unaccompanied choral works exclusively by Pärt, the Reed College concert incorporated two of his contemporaries: Scotland’s James MacMillan, with Who are these angels?; as well as Slow Motion (1990) by Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos for string quartet. Also featured on the program was British composer John Tavener (who died in 2013), and like Arvo Pärt, belonged to the Orthodox church and expressed his beliefs in his many choral and instrumental works. Tavener’s 1996 Funeral Canticle, sung in English, is a large-scale work that composed for his father’s inter-denominational funeral. Between each section, bass John Michael Boyer, sang the words “Eternal Memory,” in Greek. This phrase, though repeated four times in the work, was delivered with the utmost precision by Boyer, whose voice, at once deep and resonant, and even gravelly where called for, again created that sense of connecting to an earlier time and place.

Festival finale at Reed College.

The conclusion to the festival was Arvo Pärt’s 1985 setting of Te Deum, the traditional and celebratory text that has been set by the likes of Handel, Berlioz and others throughout the centuries. This was my first time hearing Pärt’s setting, and I believe that it will remain in the repertoire for many years to come. Pärt utilized a uniquely 20th century effect most often associated with the American composer John Cage: prepared piano. Metal screws were attached to four of the piano’s strings so that Susan DeWitt Smith could strike them at specific intervals. Electronics added an ethereal quality to the piece, as Erik Hundhoft brought up the recorded sound of the Aeolian harp (literally “played” by wind). These techniques created an atmospheric, almost out-of-doors effect: I pictured a young Arvo Pärt, standing on the Baltic shores of Estonia, looking north into a stormy horizon.

Cappella Romana’s celebration of this inspirational composer forms part of the choir’s 25th anniversary celebrations. In November, the choir participated in a performance at Stanford University, where electronics combined the reverberant acoustics of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia with Cappella Romana’s live performance. At the end of March, they perform in Seattle and Portland a Russian Chant Revival program; and in April they will perform the works of Venetian masters employed at the Imperial court of St. Petersburg. Dr. Lingas and his choir continue to bridge centuries and cultures with unique and compelling performances.

 John Pitman is music director at All Classical Portland radio. This story originally appeared on the All Classical Portland blog, “Beyond The Music.”

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