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The works of Arvo Pärt – a pilgrimage in music

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PHOTO: Peeter Langovits

Today’s birthday concert for Arvo Pärt conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste comes as culmination for Pärt’s Days, in St John’s Church of Tallinn. Like a ten day musical pilgrimage, one would wish for it to happen every fall from now onwards – as we walk through the humiliation, the repentance, the thirst after God, and the mysteries of life and death laid at our feet by the sacral sounds served by Mr Pärt.

A path also of gratitude, that by Providence we would have in Estonia a creative genius of this order, to honour whom we must not wait for his upcoming round figure of 80 years – next year – while free to indulge any time, just as any time any man is free to go to church. And, by the way, Mr Pärt would not count life as starting at birth, but at conception...

This time around, what again came alive was the Grammy awarded album «Adam’s Lament». In addition to which we had two complementary renderings – by the full-sounding Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the more «chamber» Vox Clamantis – of the comprehensive meditation of «Kanon Pokajanen».

The work, birthed by two years of deep «communion», is thereat dedicated to the abovementioned chamber choir and personally to Tõnu Kaljuste. And, if you’ll permit me: for the creation of Pärt’s, Kaljuste serves as an apostle Paul who, in all of its force and detail, takes the Creator’s message to the congregation.

Understanding and consolation

The birthday concert itself is beautified by «LamenTate», a piece for a piano and orchestra inspired by the giant sculpture «Marsyas» by the India-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor as ordered by Tate Modern gallery, London.

Around the three above pieces which I’d dare call the centrepiece of the event, «Salve Regina», «Beatus Petronius», «Statuit ei Dominus», «Alleluia-Tropus», «Father Agathon», «Festina Lente», «Te Deum», «Sarah was ninety years old», «Christmas Lullaby», «Estonian Lullaby» and many others lay as entwined.

The latter, lasting but a couple of minutes, altogether tender, ever so cherishing and incredibly quiet-ending, carries the same symbolism of the symbiosis of special and general as his very «Ukuaru Waltz». These are Estonia, figuratively... Personally, Pärt has explained «Estonian Lullaby» as a piece of a paradise lost, deep yet intimate as written for the consolation of «crown-ups, and the child that dwells in us all».

Any soul longing for understanding and consolation will never tire of hearing Pärt – as clearly felt at the opening night of September the 2nd. The line to get in the church doors was a long and winding one, right across the Freedom Square till the very mid-Harju Street. Such masses in church I last witnessed at the first free celebration of Christmas back in 1989. All of a sudden, life in these parts has turned into an experience insecure, unpredictable, and rocked by the rhythms of war, anger, animosity.

Like a hive of bees, there sat we – listening to «Adam’s Lament»... and to our own trembling soul.

And, becomingly, the preacher at St John’s Jaan Tammsalu thus opened the night by observing: «To have so many of you gathered here – it’s a miracle.» And proceeded to explain «Adam’s Lament»: the grief of the man turned away from God. Indeed, what or who would we trust in, having lost the supreme centrepiece of all values?

Arvo Pärt: «But who is that exiled Adam? We all, one might say, as ones carrying his heritage. And that «total Adam» has, on Earth, been suffering for thousands of years. As our forefather, foreseeing the human tragedy, Adam experienced the personal guilt. He has suffered for all the cataclysms, till the very last drop of despair.»

For whom the bell tolls

Not one to master the metalanguage of music critique, difficult for me to describe the facture of the piece – with utmost precision paying respect to the text by Saint Siluan. Mathematical... as said by maestro ‘bout his compositions. Thus, the nuances and shades will not pass by the ear unable in words to express it.

While hearing «Adam’s Lament» live – and by what a band of performers: Latvian Radio Choir, Vox Clamantis, and Sinfonietta Riga – I did succeed in penning some slight verbal impulses, in the notebook grabbed along... so please read the lines underneath, a confession by one who listened, and who heard.

«The initial sounds make me weak. I gulp, as deeply moved... by how, from silence, the voice emerges, in all humility. Some sounds do drop as tears. A phrase, one and the very same, just keeps repeating o’er and o’er again – now swelling, now shrinking into sobbing. Our fragility before eternity, by God Almighty governed. And then: De profundis! Out of the depths do I cry out to you, oh Lord! Let church vaults swing open, for light, for hope. And then, again, it gets all quiet. In the distance, someone is softly speaking... perhaps praying? Again the cry goes up. A pause. ... Waiting, as if, for answer, to quietly then to submit. The end, one long and constant phrase. The bells! To whom the bell is tolling? To all of us, no doubt.»

«Pärt’s Days»

September 2th to 11th, in Tallinn

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