Estonian Choir in Church with Arvo Pärt

Church of St Ignatius Loyola, New York, NY; February 1, 2017—Presented by the organization Sacred Music in a Sacred Space, the concert on February 1st was in the exquisite German Baroque Revival Church of St Ignatius Loyola on 84th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan; surroundings and music were perfectly wed. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performed an evening of music by the “holy minimalist”, Arvo Pärt. Most of his music, particularly since the very late 1970s, has been religious in nature: his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy coincided with his decision to reach back to the middle ages for his inspiration, leaving behind the big sounds of Shostakovich and Prokofiev and the 12-tone music of Schoenberg. He changed styles drastically and created what he calls “tintinabuli”, music reminiscent of bells. This all sounds odd, but hear this: In 2015, his music was the most frequently performed by a living composer according to the classical event database Bachtrack, (with John Adams and John Williams, who came in second and third, far behind).

The uncategorizeable audience—old and young, dressed for business or jogging, hipsters with dreadlocks, well-coiffed matrons—sat rapt for 80 minutes as the choir, with an occasional addition or solo from K. Scott Warren on organ, presented the composer’s music—remarkably beautiful and gentle despite wild dissonances, and due to a certain sameness, mesmerizing. Despite long-time familiarity with his music, hearing a new piece is always a brand new experience—you never can guess where it will go either melodically, rhythmically, or texturally. Harmonies change constantly but glacially; the suspense is beautiful. His word settings are one-note per word; unlike the Renaissance composers he studied, he never uses melismas.

Beginning with the brief, wordless Solfeggio, where the chorus sings only “do-re-mis”, an exercise in tonal purity, the choir then moved on to The Beatitudes, for chorus and organ. Sung in English and with flawless diction, the busy chorus sings quietly at first while the organ holds a low note as a drone—one can feel it in one’s feet—it’s practically subliminal. The chorus is full at all times, moving in and out of brief dissonances and consonances, and the piece ends with a solo on the organ, which goes from a brutal fortissimo to a gentle, fade-to-nothingness pianissimo.

“Summa, a setting of the Credo of the Latin Mass, is Pärt at his most typical and perfect: While the whole chorus is called upon, they invariably do not sing together; at times the basses will begin a word and the sopranos will enter for its second syllable; the combination of voices changes from moment to moment, the ear never tires of hearing it. Dopo la vittoria is a rarity for Pärt, a quick, playful telling of how St Ambrose, after winning the battle against the Arians, created the hymn now known as the Te Deum. Sung in Italian, the first stanza is a fun intro, the second tells more of the story, the third is more pious, and the final is exultory, with a solemn, long-held, final “Amen”, and a coda that returns to the playfulness of the first. It’s unique.

There’s much more, but describing each piece helps little. Suffice it to say that the performances were ideal, the church’s loving acoustics added to the clarity, and nobody squirmed in his or her seat. It seemed that everyone was in on some very special mindset, an unintentional understanding of the way Pärt keeps time at a distance, and the realization that even if you don’t have a particularly vivid set of beliefs, you are being spiritually enriched.