BWW Reviews: Arvo Pärt Triumphant at Carnegie Hall

BWW Reviews:  Arvo Pärt Triumphant at Carnegie Hall

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.

The first half of the performance concluded with the newest work, 2009's "Adam's Lament." The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir joined the orchestra on stage to recreate their 2009 Grammy-winning "Best Classical Choral Performance." The quasi-religious piece featured a text in Russian not Latin, contributing to the secular/non-secular tug-of-war within the work.

The second half began with the Salve Regina which featured a solo celeste which added an other-worldly quality to the piece. The choir had its first real chance to shine in this piece and conductor Kaljuste lovingly caressed the tempo and the dynamics to allow the voices to radiate in shimmering fashion.

The tour de force of the evening was certainly the finale, Pärt's Te Deum from 1985. The work features three choirs - bass and baritone choir, tenor and alto choir, and mezzo and soprano choir. The choirs were strategically placed far apart, stage left, right and center, which created an incredible sense of space, depth and movement within the piece. Adding to the already interesting orchestration was a piano and a "wind harp." The wind harp created a droning sound like the wind across the Steppes of central Asia. It could only be called haunting. The Te Deum is a study in contrasts, alternating between stark, austere minimalist orchestration and massive, hammer-of-God, bombast. Although the piece was by far the most straight-ahead religious piece of the evening, it's magically angelic vocal harmonies transcended religion and carried a universal vision of hope.

When the composer took to the stage at the end of the evening - his first appearance in New York in several decades - he was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation. Six curtain calls later, he gestured to the audience that he needed to go to bed (in fact he had a long evening of signing CDs in the gift shop still ahead of him). Looking around at the audience - including numerous celebrities - one noticed a decidedly mixed bag of faces. There were a considerable amount of young people (relatively speaking) compared to your usual classical crowd.

There may be a message here for other orchestras in these dire economic times. Given the fact that the performance was a complete sell out and that they probably could have sold out several more, one wonders why Pärt's music isn't performed much more often than it is? As more and more orchestras try leaning towards pop and classical cross-over as a means to try to appeal to new audiences, Saturday night's concert stands in stark contrast. Pärt's music is about as far from crossover as one can possibly get and yet there were so many young adults and millennials in attendance that one must wonder if "going pop" or "going soft" is really not the logical choice to address the problem of dwindling audiences.

Perhaps Bjork, Michael Stipe and Keanu Reeves may have second careers as programming consultants for symphony orchestras! "Dude, where's my Arvo?"

Peter Danish

BWW Classical Editor


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Peter Danish Peter Danish is a Media Marketing Consultant and Classical Arts Presenter. He is a founding member of ArtsRock, where he presented concerts with such world renowned artists as Grammy winning Classical Guitarist Sharon Isbin, Grammy winning Violinist Marc O'Connor, The Eroica Trio, The American Brass Quintet, The New York Philharmonic Brass Quintet, Alec Baldwin, Louis Black and Robert Klein. At The Riverspace Performing Arts Center, he presented such artists as Meryl Streep, Jonathan Demme, Bill T. Jones, Bill Irwin, Mike Nichols, Ani Di Franco, Eve Ensler, Pete Seeger, Ellen Burstyn, Edward Albee and Kathleen Turner. He has programmed concerts and educational programs for a multitude of local arts organizations including the American National Opera and the Westchester Hudson Opera, and has lectured on opera and classical music in schools and libraries as part of their outreach programs. For over two decades he has served as Director of Marketing for NBC, Vice President of Marketing for Telemundo, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Azteca TV Network, and Marketing Consultant to PBS. He is a member of the Dramatist Guild of America, The Wagner Society of N.Y. and Board of Trustees of the award-winning classical concert series, The Carnegie Room Concerts at the Nyack Library. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Ad Age, Ad Week and Media Week.