Arvo Part enthralls audiences as music blends ancient, modern
A delicate veil of voices floats on the air at the Kennedy Center, filling the packed concert hall with the captivating music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
His pieces carry the listeners along at the venue in Washington, D.C., entering into the depths of Adam's lament following man's fall from grace; sinking down in heavy reverence before Christ the King; and floating away as a choir of voices proclaims "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus," seemingly without end.
The May 27 concert, the first of four to be played in Washington and New York, sponsored by the Estonian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in New York, was a glimpse into Pärt's unique role in today's classical world: a place from which he binds together an ancient tradition of sacred music in the West with modern techniques, reintroducing a love of beauty to contemporary modes of thought in music and emphasizing intellectual ideals in the emotive environment of today's sacred music.
Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia, in 1935, and has transformed over the course of his compositional career from a student of modern Soviet schools of music into an eminent figure within minimalist and sacred music.
Most recently, the composer's choral work "Adam's Lament," based on the spiritual meditations of Silouan the Athonite, a saint of the Orthodox Churches, won the 2014 Grammy for "Best Choral Performance."
A convert to Russian Orthodoxy from Lutheranism, he was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Benedict XVI in 2011 .
The Kennedy Center program included "Adam's Lament," as well as his 1977 compositions "Fratres" and "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten", and his 1985 “Te Deum.”
While Pärt is the "most performed living classical composer" as Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted before the concert, this performance was unique in that it was conducted by fellow Estonian and expert interpreter of Pärt's works, Tõnu Kaljuste and his ensembles, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.
Most notable, however, was the composer's attendance at the concert, marking his first appearance in the United States since 1984.
According to Stephen Gorbos, a professor of music composition at Catholic University of America, this enthusiasm is demonstrative of the composer's broad appeal.
"This music is the music of our time," Gorbos said to CNA May 27, adding that it "communicates to a very broad audience."
Stylistically, Gorbos explained, Pärt's music "is pretty abstract" and modern, and is "very much linked to the music of our own time.”
This use of modern systems makes the deep spiritual core of many of his works a surprising find in "someone that came out of a state-sponsored and really stylistically mandated system," Gorbos said.
Sara Pecknold, a PhD. candidate in music at the Catholic University of America who has studied the history of sacred music and Pärt, commented that while "his music still sounds modern" it is also "rooted in the tradition," building upon Gregorian chant techniques and ideas of musical progression.
She explained that his creation of the "tintinnabuli" technique mathematically builds a piece of music around one musical triad, or three-note chord, a style that "is both ancient and modern" in its reference to the Trinity and the "continued presence of God" as well as its "crunchy" dissonances.
"There's this really intense intellectual thing going on," Pecknold said, but the ideas behind his music seek to create beauty.
"I think the beauty still comes out as an aesthetic ideal."
While most "modern music wants to make everything intellectual," she continued, "I think it's really important that beauty comes to the fore again in Pärt's music."
"He gives beauty back to the intellectual side of music," Pecknold said, musing that Pärt can also "give back (to the Church) the rigorous intellectual side of music for which we have so much need in this time.”