Latvian Radio Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
November 17, 2012
It would be easy to paint the maturation of Arvo Pärt in the shape of a funnel. The Estonian composer was trained in the language of modernism but came to consolidate his musical foci into so-called “holy minimalism”—a catchall term that, while descriptive enough, ultimately defeats itself. In Pärt’s vision, minimalism seems better represented as pinpoints of light, stars that would be nothing without their limpid sky. Such mutual dependency is what makes the music sacred. We do better, then, to twin the funnel into an hourglass, endlessly turned by the hands and mouths of whoever bestows its truths to those fortunate enough to hear them. So we are when the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Rīga, under the masterful guidance of Tõnu Kaljuste, present an all-Pärt program as part of Lincoln Center’s annual White Light Festival. Anticipation is high and met when the first strains of the Berliner Messe (1990-91, rev. 2002) touch our cortices. Composed on commission after Pärt’s emigration to Berlin, this setting of the Ordinary possesses a remarkable permeability. Around the standard texts and interjected Allelujas, strings sketch the thunder of conversion. Their pulse is elemental, hidden. Suspension awaits in Pärt’s setting of the Te Deum (1984-85, rev. 1992), the work that introduced me to its composer and which has since lived inside me. It develops motives like a book: knowledge that came before feeds into that which follows. A digitally sampled wind harp unfurls a constant and godly breath, piano dipping into the font of reason and stirring double basses to higher registers. Every crescendo equals stillness. We feel it in the soles of our feet, in the palms of our hands, in the stigmata of our collective memory.
Intermission brings about the surreal din of interpretation, snatches of recreated melody and soloists praised for the sake of proving knowledge.
Trisagion (1992, rev. 1994) begins the second half. Written in celebration of the 500th anniversary of a small Finnish parish, its title comes from the Greek for “Thrice Holy” and makes reference to Orthodox prayer and to the piece’s three core pitches. It is an overturned cup, spilling unspoken words. It is the beat of mortality. It is crystal, tarnished and restored. Also restored are the writings of ascetic Silouan of Athos (1866-1938), something of a touchstone of Pärt’s work and the red thread of Adam’s Lament (2009), the landscape of which resonates with suffering. Tears feed its soil as sunlight feeds the flora that grow from it. The mountains shiver, fauna likewise in their dreamless slumber. All the more appropriate that the musicians encore with Estonian Lullaby (2002, rev. 2006), bringing with it needed repose in an age so restless that only a child’s mind can contain its temper.
Nestled in the orchestra section of Alice Tully Hall, and in the most prayerful music I have experienced firsthand in years, I become uncomfortably aware of the allowances that brought us together. In the suffering of Silouan’s Adam lies the root of strife. How can Pärt not have this in mind when he has suffused his reading with the pain of the mortal body, its skeleton at once fractured and bonded by immeasurable sorrow? On this note, I must respectfully disagree with Zachary Woolfe, who in his November 19 New York Times review characterizes Pärt as having “defined a seductive vision of modern spiritual music, one that seeks to escape our world…rather than to embrace it.” I wonder if we are listening to the same music, for it is anything but escapist. Rather, it reminds me that I am experiencing an $80-per-ticket luxury even as innocents continue to die for nothing at the hands of self-interested regimes. Its surplus of beauty only serves to emphasize the rarity thereof. In spite of venue and context, the intimacy of the musicianship heightens my awareness of these realities. That their charge transcends the commercial trappings of the festival speaks to precisely the love that went into its creation, even if it does nothing to obscure the tightrope I walk in balancing appreciation with the hypocrisy of my inaction. I feel this acutely as, in the wake of a standing ovation, concertgoers debate the technical ups and downs of what they have just heard. With such effect still whirring inside us, what difference do a few glitches in the first half make?
In the toy chest of temptation, there is a kaleidoscope of shadow. Through it, one sees that the world has become sick with perlocution. Turning it in the hands only darkens its glory. It blinds us to those in need. Awareness, this music tells us, is not enough. One must also know the vitality of experience. Grace is not something to be won back through good deeds or mere contemplation, but felt when one no longer seeks it. When I seek Mr. Kaljuste instead and inform him that I will be writing this review, he humbly wishes me good luck. Yet I read a deeper truth into the statement. Without luck, I would not have been here. May I never forget that.
Let me know Thy touch,
that I may know of life.
Let me know Thy touchlessness,
that I may know the path.