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Fear and Trembling and Arvo Pärt

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
11/13/2010 -  
White Light Festival
Johann Sebastian Bach: Singest dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225 – Komm, Jesu, Komm!, BWV 229
Arvo Pärt: Stabat Mater – Adam’s Lament (American Premieres)

Latvian National Choir, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Tõnu Kaljuste (Conductor)

J.S. Bach (© Altes Rathaus, Leipzig)

I am afraid of Arvo Pärt. No, actually I resent Arvo Pärt. And after the Stabat Mater performed last night by the Latvian National Choir and New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the resentment was greater than before.

An explanation. When listening to the sacred music of favored composers–Orlando de Lassus, Monteverdi, Bach, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Mozart etc etc etc–I want to be elevated to the most extreme human emotions. Whether joy or desolation, pride or fierceness, emotional wonders or musical fervor. But the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt sends me to another sphere, a sphere in which I am wholly uncomfortable. Mr. Pärt’s music is not “sacred” per se. He wants me to travel to his own uiiverse, when I want to be happy in mine. And when I am ready to take a subway back to East Village home and my dog, Arvo Pärt rubs his hand against mine (musically speaking), predicting, showing, persuading, urging and finally forcing me through his Gates of Perception.

That can be unnerving, though the White Night Festival lays out the parameters. As the Lincoln Center official notes say, the Festival is “to move us beyond ourselves and illuminate our larger interior universe.”

Mr. Pärt does just that. But his mesmerizing persuades us lose our own control. His magic might be the same Satanic magic which tempted Jesus in the desert.

Back to reality. Three of the four works in tonight’s program were astonishing, because the Latvian National Choir, founded during the middle of World War II, can be astonishing. It doesn’t have the massive swelling glory of our usual choirs, since only 34 singers are on stage. Yet the soprano section has a sweetness which is never cloying, the antiphonal moments of the whole choir during two Bach motets gave one the illusion of a large cathedral. It wasn’t the grandeur, but the crystal clear notation (if not always the German or Russian language) which was so impressive.

The one disappointment was the first section of the Singet dem Herrn…, poorly balanced in either orchestra or choir. Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste is such a perfectionist that this was quickly rectified. The choir and Bach-sized orchestra, were bisected and tempos for both motets were brisk and beguiling. Bach wrote the pieces for probably four or six singes at most, and the Latvian Choir was ready to sing with a transparent lilt.

The two Arvo Pärt American premieres showed that the composer is no monolith. In fact, his second work, Adam’s Lament, written for a predominantly Islamic audience at the Istanbul Music Festival, with a libretto to match, sounded at times actually Handelian.

The words, written by a Russian “saint” who died in 1938, tell of Adam’s desolation after leaving the Garden of Eden, as well as his even worse sadness after Cain kills Abel. For a Muslim country, this was an Old Testament setting. But more important, the words, where Adam fears less the loss of Paradise than the loss of God, can be reflected in a noted Sufi saying.

“If I love God in hopes of achieving heaven, may I never see heaven. If I love God for fear of hell, toss me into hell. If I love God for that love itself, that is how it should be.”

Unlike the preceding Stabat Mater, this was not a prayer but an enchanting story. At times, the music was literal (the string buzzing with tremolos when we hear of evil and the devil). But mainly this was like a Baroque oratorio, with songs, recitatives and anthems, with a conservative harmonies, with a narrative force.

And oh, how happy I was that he ended with this fascinating but less than passionate work. For the Stabat Mater was the kind of Arvo Pärt music which I feared so much.

The work began like the start of Mozart’s Requiem. Strings appearing slowly out of the mist, a melody slowly building up from the choir. From then, it was a throbbing, aching, and all too frequently hypnotic 24 minutes. The chorus could be full at times, sparse at other times. The text is of course the saddest in Medieval Christian literature, but the orchestra, in a series of interludes, was romping joyously, as if to wipe away the austerity of the choral sections.

Much as I want to show elation for chorus, orchestra, and the stately Liszt-coiffed conductor, Tõnu Kaljuste, I was lulled into an other-worldly agony which transcended mere words, mere notes and mere music. Perhaps this was Mr. Pärt’s aim, perhaps it was the aforesaid Satanic temptation.

At any rate, I opted not to drink the complementary wine which comes with the White Light concerts. As Mr. Pärt can send our minds to other universes, perhaps the wine would be transubstantiated into blood.

Arvo Pärt, like God, moves in mysterious (and frequently scary) ways.

Harry Rolnick



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