The Arvo Pärt Project at Carnegie Hall
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
May 31th 2014

What do Bjork, Michael Stipe of REM and Keanu Reeves have in common? They were all present at Carnegie Hall Saturday evening for a performance of the music of legendary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

Arvo Pärt is arguably the most popular classical composer of the last fifty years. He may or may not have the most fans, but he certainly has the most loyal ones – as evidenced by the rock-star-like ovation he received when taking the stage. The long, loud and ruckus applause complete with hoots and screams was something completely unexpected, especially considering the program was largely comprised of religious music.

Pärt holds a very special place in the hearts of Estonians. One young woman, a volunteer for the Estonian Consulate, could not hold back the tears in her eyes as she discussed what his music meant to the Estonian people. This kind of devout reverence is not exactly commonplace in the classical world these days – and it is kind of a shame that it not.

Dr. Nicholas Reeves and Dr. Peter Bouteneff, of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary (the sponsor of the evening) explained in the programme that the Arvo Pärt Project was inaugurated in 2011 to explore the spiritual roots of Mr. Pärt’s music. And Maestro Pärt is cooperating with the seminary on the project which includes concerts, lectures and publications devoted to Mr. Pärt’s personal spiritual narrative.

The Tallinn Chamber Orchestra is no stranger to Pärt’s music and has an impressive recording catalogue of his works. Founded in 1993 by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, who led the concert, the orchestra handled the quirky rhythms and complex harmonic structure flawlessly.

The program began with two instrumental pieces from 1977, Fratres and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.  Fratres is widely considered one of Pärt’s great masterpieces and the work that initially put him on the map. It has been performed in numerous arrangements including its most famous recording by none other than jazz legend Keith Jarrett. The Talinn Orchestra performed the most standard arrangement of the piece, for violin soloist (concertmaster Harry Traksmann) and string orchestra with percussionist. The work is harmonically challenging and has an almost frightening quality to it, as eight stanzas build upon one another, separated by punctual interruptions by the percussionist, whose simple motif (reminiscent of the tympani breaks in Copland’s 3rd Symphony) also grew and grew in orchestration and volume as the piece swirled toward its searing climax.

The Cantus, composed as an elegy for the late composer Benjamin Britten, begins (and ends) with several measures of scored silence. To the audience’s collective credit, you could hear a pin drop. When the first note sounded, a single tubular bell, a chill went up the spine. A listener at home, in the dark, with headphones on, could not have experienced a more intimate connection. The piece, a brief gem of what the composer calls “tintinnabuli” style, also featured layer upon layer of harmonically dissonant strings, hypnotically droning a similar cascading melody over and over like waves crashing on the sand.