Of Tears, Of Privilege: Adam’s Lament at Lincoln Center

Adam’s Lament
Latvian Radio Choir
Sinfonietta Rīga
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
November 17, 2012

Of Tears…
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.

Of Privilege…
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.

2 thoughts on “Of Tears, Of Privilege: Adam’s Lament at Lincoln Center

  1. I am in some agreement with the NY Times reviewer’s last remarks: “That and Mr. Pärt’s other early, experimental compositions, though little played these days, evince, to my taste, a struggle — personal, musical, spiritual — more stimulating than the soothing works for which he became famous.”

    While I adore some of Pärt’s post-1970 work, there is a sense of invariability to the bulk of his output, and I find his several pieces from the 1960s more stylistically wide-ranging and meaty. It’s curious that none of these pieces have been recorded for ECM. Manfred Eicher must have at least some interest in representing both sides of the Soviet composers who started off in the Sixties avant-garde and then reconciled with tradition, because he featured Alexander Knaifel’s music from those two different eras on a single disc. Yet this hasn’t been done for Pärt.

    Perhaps the decision is not Eicher’s but Pärt’s. The composer now refuses to speak about the Soviet era to interviewers, and while he still allows the 1960s works to be performed, maybe he doesn’t want them on ECM, it being the label that most prominently represents him.

    1. Thank you for pointing this out, Christopher. There’s certainly something to be said for what both you and Woolfe illuminate as regards Pärt’s earlier works. When I saw the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra live in 1995, they performed the Collage sur B-A-C-H in a program that included the more well-known Te Deum and Silouans Song, among others. The concert also ended with a Bach motet, thus bringing the choice full circle. The effect was ravishing, to say the least, and was actually what prompted me to explore Pärt’s pre-tintinnabuli pieces on other labels in the first place. Yet while I do think that the 1960s pieces are more wide-ranging in style, I find the recent works to be more wide-ranging in content. The feeling of a work like Adam’s Lament, assuming one is paying attention to the text, is a world apart from, for example, the Magnificat. I was unaware of the composer’s own aversion to discussing the Soviet era, but given what you say it’s not surprising, either.

      Still, I fail to see how the sense of struggle in Pärt’s more famous works is any less stimulating than that in the lesser-known. I find the Te Deum, for example, to be nothing if not tense. How can anything written in God’s name be anything else, for such music is, essentially, an attempt to express the divine in mortal terms. Further, how can we not feel the profundity of struggle in the concert’s centerpiece about a postlapsarian Adam? Christian composers, regardless of denomination, have grappled with this fallenness for centuries, and I imagine always will. It is precisely this struggle that gives the music its so-called “soothing” qualities. It’s not soothing because it is necessarily dulcet, but because in being so fraught with struggle it is relatable to us imperfect beings. I am also wary when critics try to read personal struggle into music simply because it emerged out of a politically sensitive context. This same fate has befallen Shostakovich, who is all too often painted as a tortured composer under an insensitive regime whose music inevitably absorbed that hardship as some sort of catharsis. Might it also be possible that Pärt chooses not to discuss that period in order to avoid being typecast in a similar vein? Might he elide the political question because it deludes us into equating social depravity with godly being? Our purpose is not to find a way out of this world, but rather to address the distorted organism we have so selfishly made of it, and to lose ourselves in hyperbolic discussions of past vs. present takes us away from that awareness.

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