If there were any doubts as to why Arvo Pärt remains the most-performed living composer for three years running, one only had to be anywhere near the vicinity of Carnegie Hall Saturday night for the all-Pärt performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under the direction of conductor Tönu Kaljuste. Part of St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Arvo Pärt Project—a series of four performances in Washington, D.C. and New York City—the Carnegie Hall performance weaved together three of the composer’s most revered works from 1977 to 2001, as well as the 2009 Grammy Award–winning Adam’s Lament.
As I recently wrote in a profile of the composer ahead of the Arvo Pärt Project’s performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is easy to immediately think of the scraggly bearded Estonian composer as a modern-day monk, as this couldn’t be further from the truth. Pärt’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church began later in the composer’s life, after he had already amassed a body of work founded on the twelve-tone and collage techniques popular in the avant-garde style of mid-century European composition. It was only after the composer’s seven-year silence commenced in 1968, in which Pärt studied Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, that his signature style of tintinnabuli (“little bells”) was born.
Saturday evening’s program provided a survey of Pärt’s tintinnabuli works from the mid-1970s to today, a refreshing mix of orchestral and choral pieces that showcased a wealth of musical diversity, despite all being built upon the same set of compositional guidelines. The opening work, Fratres—presented in its incarnation for solo violin, string orchestra, and percussion—embodies the melody, harmonic stasis, and quiet drama that have come to be associated with Pärt’s works: after a fiendishly difficult cadenza of broken chord’s that jumps across the violin’s four strings, a thud from the bass drum and claves ushers in a heart-wrenching and austere triadic chorale from the string body.
As the several repetitions of the melody come and go, only the solo violin changes its contour—from passionate double- and triple-stopped chords to ethereal harmonics in the instrument’s upper reaches. Silence is equally important to sound in Pärt’s music, and the drone of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra’s lower strings—when mixed with Carnegie’s superior acoustics—felt akin to the slow hum of the earth’s rotation.
The choral works were given definitive performances (the choir and orchestra have recorded all of Pärt’s music under the composer’s direction) that ranged from the stormy cries of a tortured Adam in Adam’s Lament to whispered pleas for forgiveness from Mary in the Salve Regina—a work that benefitted greatly from important use of the celesta’s haunting ring.
The final work of the evening, 1984’s Te Deum, is one of Pärt’s seminal works in that it give a crystalline account of the tintinnabuli technique. Divided into three choirs—one male, one female, and one mixed choir representing a band of angels—there is a stunning mix of monody and triadic harmonies, juxtaposed against the persistent drone of low strings and the eerie hum of an electronic wind harp. It is easy to fixate on every move of the melodic lines’ contour when presented alone, which made every entrance of the mixed choir providing the triadic harmonies feel like a sonic blossoming—a radiant shimmer of D major against the monody of an ancient church mode centered on D.
Given that this was Pärt’s first trip to New York City in 30 years, and the likelihood that he may never make such a trip again, I’ve never seen such an immediate and thunderous ovation as when this audience leapt to their feet after the final “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus” decayed in the hall. Truly singular among his peers, Pärt’s music gives listeners the chance to feel the eternal as well as the personal. For being a sold-out crowd, the raptured silence of the audience was deafening—well contrasted to the simple, elegant beauty of this humble, ageless music.