Estonia in Concert: The Music of Arvo Pärt

Estonia in Concert: The Music of Arvo Pärt

Screen capture taken from video of Tuesday's Kennedy Center concert honoring the work of Arvo Pärt.
Screen capture taken from video of Tuesday's Kennedy Center concert honoring the work of Arvo Pärt. (Courtesy Kennedy Center.)

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2014 – During or after a concert, there are often bouts of applause, enthusiastic ovations and sometimes standing ovations to acknowledge a job well done. But on rare occasions, spontaneous ovations can erupt that are genuine outpourings of heartfelt joy and thanks. The latter occurred spontaneously this past Tuesday evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall during a special program focusing on the music of a single contemporary composer, Estonia’s esteemed Arvo Pärt.

The performance was conducted by recent Grammy Award winner Tõnu Kaljuste, conducting the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra along with his incomparable Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Maestro Kaljuste’s powerful presence would also define the evening, as his mastery of Mr. Pärt’s oeuvre would be on full display.

Composer Arvo Pärt. Photo taken at a concert event in Dublin's Christchurch Cathedral, 2008. (Via Wikipedia)
Composer Arvo Pärt. Photo taken at a concert event in Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral, 2008. (Via Wikipedia)

Prior to the performance, opening remarks were given by the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who nearly stole the show himself with his candid manor, unaffected humor, and clear love of Arvo Pärt’s music. It was enough to give one a feeling of Presidential envy.

In addition, many of those attending this concert were obviously surprised to hear the President of Estonia speaking in perfect western English, perhaps not knowing that the Swedish-born Mr. Ilves actually grew up in our own state of New Jersey.

But when Tuesday’s capacity audience was made aware of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s presence in the first balcony during remarks made by Garth Ross, the KenCen’s VP for community engagement, they erupted spontaneously into a lengthy and enthusiastic ovation, directing their appreciation as many turned to face him. Mr. Pärt’s characteristic deep and shining eyes were clearly visible from the floor, and he seemed genuinely grateful as he acknowledged the audience’s appreciation.

Such a sight was a long way from Mr. Pärt’s humble early years as a composer living and working behind the Iron Curtain in Estonia. As a young man, Pärt was a dedicated modernist. His recognized skill with this compositional style drew him as much praise as it did condemnation. Soon thereafter, however, he experienced a major aesthetic and spiritual crisis, and he went silent as a composer for eight long years.

The Arvo Pärt who emerged from this prolonged silence would be resurrected as a deeply committed Orthodox Christian, composing openly religious music in a more stable and accessible style.

Once condemned for his earlier formalism, his newfound and pronounced musical spirituality began to draw strong condemnation for entirely different reasons. As a result, Mr. Pärt had no choice but to pack up his family and flee Estonia, not knowing if he would ever see his beloved homeland again. He would settle in Austria and later Berlin, with his music slowly gaining a wider recognition in the early 90’s as the Soviet Union and its oppressive influence crumbled under its own weight.

The knowledge of this backstory by many in the audience what made that Kennedy Center ovation – and the concert that followed – so very special for all in attendance. Having fought the Soviet system, the cultural ravages of modernism, and the initial incomprehension of audiences and performers alike with regard to his musical metamorphosis, the world’s most performed living composer took in the adulation with a deeply refined sense of humility.

The very country that Pärt once had to flee was now hosting him and his wife as guests of honor in the capital city of the United States, while Estonia’s admiring President took the lead in expressing his admiration for the composer. One cannot miss the irony that an increasingly secularized western audience was there in the Concert Hall to experience some of the most unapologetically sacred music of our time. It was a victorious moment that served to usher in a musical evening of refined beauty.

Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, courtesy Maestro Kaljuste's website.
Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, courtesy Maestro Kaljuste’s website.

The program itself was comprised of a cross-section of Pärt’s “post-silence” works, beginning with his early work “Fratres.” This was followed by a spirited and deeply moving rendition of his more recent “Adam’s Lament,” in which Pärt set an ancient meditation on the fall of man. Pärt’s music somehow plumbed the darkness of man’s greatest error without ever falling into despair: ever there was the light of salvation peaking through.

Moving on without an intermission, the orchestra would remain on stage alone to play the iconic “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten.” Written in Pärt’s post-modernist “tintinnabuli” style, the work winds a complex and mournful polyphonic web based only on the pitches of the A minor scale. The work demands a singular focused intensity in order to be successful, and the Tallinn Chamber symphony responded admirably.

The evening would conclude with maestro Pärt’s iconic “Te Deum,” scored for three choirs and chamber orchestra. Here the Estonian singers would split into three smaller choirs distributed evenly across the stage. Despite having their already small choir cut into thirds, the singers performed with supreme clarity and surprising projection throughout the thirty minute work. Combining the influence of early Church music, the newer tintinnabuli style, and Pärt’s clear devotion to what he calls a text with “immutable truths,” the “Te Deum” absolutely sparkled under Kaljuste’s deft touch, leaving a breathless silence in the audience at its conclusion.

When Kaljuste was finally able to coax Maestro Pärt to the stage for a well deserved encore ovation, the 78-year old master clearly enjoyed the moment, traversing the stage and taking his time in thanking the performers. Mr. Pärt would later stand with his wife Nora quietly in the corner of the reception which followed, gently greeting his many guests and admirers. He spoke with his characteristic quiet manner, smiled often, took pictures, and joked about how strong the champagne was.

In an age where encounters with celebrity can be so jading, Arvo Pärt presented a picture of faithful authenticity which matched the content of his work. The power of his music – and the strength of appreciation that it drew that evening – was a convincing reminder that no matter what darkness or confusion may envelop a culture, authentic beauty will always have the final victory.

(View the Kennedy Center’s video of this major event by clicking this link.) 


PartPix, Christchurch Cathedral, central Dublin 2008. (b. 1935)

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