“I sat on the E train [after the performance], wondering what could bring a human being to write such tragic, hopeful and incredible music.”
An hour and 12 minutes into THERE WILL BE BLOOD, protagonist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), beats the hell out of his nemesis, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), in a puddle of thick oil and mud. It does not matter why, nor do you have to watch the whole movie in order to understand this scene, although seeing the full movie is well worth the watch, fast forwarding to that scene is strongly recommended.
If the great performance that earned Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar does not grip you, if the violence on screen does not snare your attention, a cello and a piano piece, Frates, created by the Estonian and contemporary composer Arvo Pärt, will seize your imagination.
Frates was the first piece played by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra led by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste at Carnegie Hall Saturday, May 31. Four other pieces followed with the participation of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Frates roughly translates to brother, and it can cause a rush of emotion. At times listeners will be thrown into despair as a solo cello –depending on the recording – weeps softly with a piano that at times trembles ferociously, only to surge into its higher, softer notes.
Pärt’s music viscerally impacts listeners. As Peter Bouteneff, a co-directors and Head of Concerts – the other being Nicholas Reeves – writes in the Playbill for The Arvo Pärt Project, “The pieces performed tonight testify to a continuity of musical emotive character: They are somber and spare, holding together turmoil and stability, suffering and hope.”
On stage, Harry Traksmann played the violin with sporadic tempestuousness and moments of deep melancholia. In these moments of dispiritedness, the rest of the string orchestra joined in, adding to the gloom. Slowly, Traksmann played until an uplifting tune surfaced only to be interrupted by a menacing, deep-sounding drum and a small wooden block.
He then plucks at the strings of his violin, indicating the beginning of despair. Maybe it was the fact that I was seated so far away or that whenever I listen to Frates, the volume is always at its highest, but the violin did not speak as powerfully as the cello. Nonetheless, Traksmann was brilliant emulating the mixture of emotions.
The next piece was Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Again, the audience was swept by moods that constantly changed, except this time spirits never seemed to rise. Instead, every note by the orchestra felt like a step deeper into a forlorn world. But what stood out most was the bell that resonated through Carnegie Hall. Being the last instrument played as all the others were cut off in the middle of their distancing vibrations, the ringing of the bell left the air thick with despondency, even after the quietness returned to the concert hall.
This continued throughout the rest of the concert when the choir joined the orchestra. Together they played Adam’s Lament, Salve Regina and Te Deum. Adam’s Lament was also combined with a projection of the English translation. The song follows Adam after he is thrown out of paradise. He feels deep regret for not only being banned from Paradise but also losing the warmth and love God had once given him.
Adam cries at the end through the powerful and talented voices of the choir, “Be merciful unto me, O Lord! Bestow on me the spirit of humility and love.”
Much of Arvo Pärt’s music uses religion as its foundation; he is, after all, an Orthodox Christian. Many in the audience were as well. I sat next to Reverend Dr. Steven Voytovich, a dean at the St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, a sister school of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary, the school that presented the Arvo Pärt Project. He had thick black hair turning grey at the sides and wore black rimmed glasses. Rev. Dr. Voytocich also had the same black robes that a few others in the audience had been wearing as well as a large cross that hung around their necks.
Rev. Dr. Voytovich pointed out Dr. Peter Bouteneff, Rev. Dr. Nicholas Reeves and Reeves’ father, who watched from a balcony level seat- a heavyset, bald gentleman with a thick white beard wearing the Reverend’s same uniform. One can only imagine the pride he had knowing his son helped put together a wonderful performance. You do not, however, need to be a spiritual devotee to get appreciate Arvo Pärt’s music.
You just feel it as every instrument is played and as the voices of the choir are entrapped in your ear. The Arvo Pärt Project was an emotional experience for all. It is safe to say it was emotional for Arvo Pärt as well, for he took to the stage and looked around Carnegie Hall in disbelief, bowing and cradling himself with his thin arms, his smile clearly visible despite the thick, white beard.
As Rev. Dr. Voytovich asked earlier, ‘I wonder what the conductor must feel like having the composer sit directly behind him?” If conductor Tõnu Kaljuste felt intimidated, it did not show. And if the air was somehow visible like water, I’m sure the intense ripples caused by Kaljuste would be art in themselves.
I left the concert hall that night and burrowed through the subways of New York with the urge to listen to Frates again. I did. In the loneliness of that subway ride home, the piece seemed fitting and the emotions that gripped the audience in Carnegie Hall returned, and I sat on the E train wondering what could bring a human being to write such tragic, hopeful and incredible music.