Directed and filmed by Dorian Supin
Release date: October 12, 2012
In 2011, the Old Town Music School of Collegium Educationis Revaliae and the International Arvo Pärt Centre put on a student concert of Pärt’s music at St Michael’s Church in Tallinn. Playing Pärt documents both this historic performance and the rehearsals leading up to it, supplemented by interviews with the composer and his wife, Nora.
Said concert is a charming, in-depth survey of Pärt’s legacy, and of the beauty that gives it resonance. Many pieces on the program will be familiar to ECM listeners: organ works Trivium and Pari Intervallo (the latter arranged here for four guitars), Da Pacem Domine (arranged for four recorders), and the solemn Für Alina are standouts among them. Spiegel im Spiegel, for its balance of tension and prayer, is another. Throughout, a quiet respect prevails by way of a “local” feeling that cannot be replicated in the international concert hall. These melodies, however familiar, paint even more direct lines to the heart when so endearingly performed. Like fragrances in sound, they waft through the senses, following ancient channels of memory even while forging new ones.
Delightful surprises abound. First and foremost are “The Cycle of Four Easy Dances,” from the 1959 collection Music for Children’s Theatre, including the rarely heard “Butterflies” and the evocative “Dance of the Ducklings,” replete with dissonant splashes of webbed feet. Just as alluring is “I’m Already Big,” a children’s song composed when Pärt was a student. The focus on youth feels as poignant as it does inevitable, and makes indelible impressions in such choral settings as Veni Creator (a 2006 commission from the German Bishops’ Conference), Bogoróditse Djévo (a 1990 commission from Cambridge King’s College Choir, based on a Church Slavonic hymn to the Virgin Mary), and Vater Unser (composed in 2005 and based on a German translation of the Lord’s Prayer), for which the composer at the piano accompanies a quartet of singers.
Other highlights are Ukuaru Waltz, originally composed for the film Ukauru (1973, dir. Leid Laius) and performed on two chromatic kannels (plucked zithers), the aleatoric Diagramme (Pärt’s opus 11), and Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, a solo piano piece composed in 1977 while daughter Ariina was recovering from an appendix operation. Trepidations and hope of light breathe through every note.
Yet it’s in the rehearsals where Pärt’s humilities come out in full attendance. More than providing insight into the mind of a world-renowned composer, they reveal the soul of a man whose entire concept of art is nothing without faith in eternity. He understands the quality of sound, and the beauty of it being played with heart. If anything, and for that very reason, he’s more demanding of the children’s pieces, which in all their etudinal simplicity allow the interpreter’s soul to resound. During a rehearsal of “Butterflies,” for instance, he says, “It’s essential for the music to have some kind of secret. That’s the case of the butterfly as well. It’s a mysterious creature.” For him, the rudiment is sacred.
His music has materiality, and he treats it accordingly. Whether stressing the positions of a pianist’s hands while playing Für Alina or chiding himself for inclusion of inappropriate dynamics in the original score to “Dance of the Ducklings” (upon hearing which, he exclaims, “A beautiful piece. Did I compose it?”), he upholds the value of any given moment to shape something unexpected, personal, and true.
We encounter echoes of this philosophy in his conversations with Nora. In these, the subject of the interpreter is a red thread, pulling at questions of authority versus idiosyncrasy, and concluding that one must be both strong and gentle in order to play music with genuine feeling. “It has to be born in the soul of the interpreter,” he says, for in the body thereof is something concrete and in the metaphysical thereof is something ineffable. “The composer,” he goes on to say, “can learn a lot from the interpreter.” Most musicians, Nora agrees, are unresponsive to this suggestion. It’s like trying to explain how the sun shines. Hardship, Pärt adds, helps people understand this. Children notice it, too. Hence, the concert. They are straightforward, avers Nora, whereas professionals are contending with “a thousand different traditions.” Innocence allows performers to take notes seriously. She further likens music to the optical effect of two binocular images merging into one, a simile I would extend to the listener’s relationship to what’s being heard. Countless motifs out there are waiting to blend into our own. Let this film be a reminder of our openness to the spiritually healthiest ones.