Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turned 75 yesterday. His record label ECM Records is celebrating his three-quarters of a century with two new recordings.
Pärt’s 4th Symphony is a long-anticipated follow-up to his 3rd – which was written back in 1971! In the interim, the composer has moved from a modernist style to an idiosyncratic version of minimalism; one the composer calls the “tintinnabuli” style of composition. From bell-like resonances and slowly moving chant melodies, Pärt has crafted a personal compositional language of considerable appeal. And while this has included a number of stirring instrumental works, such as Tabula Rasa and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, more recently Pärt has been known for his choral music. His return to symphonic form is thus an opportunity to explore his mature language in a different milieu.
Perhaps in part as an acknowledgement of the home of the orchestra commissioning the Fourth Symphony – the “City of Angels” – Pärt decided to use a text as a formative – if subliminal – device in his preparations of the piece: the Canon of the Guardian Angel. Thus, while this is certainly not merely a transcription of a vocal piece – it sounds idiomatic and well orchestrated – there is a certain chant-like quality which demonstrates the symphony’s affinity with the vocal music and chant texts that are Pärt’s constant companions.
The live recording is of the work’s premiere in Disney Hall in LA. Salonen and the LA Phil give a muscular rendition of the piece, emphasizing its emphatic gestures while still allowing for the symphony’s many reflective, meditative oases to have considerably lustrous resonance. And while one can certainly hear a palpable connection to Pärt’s chant-inspired tintinnabuli pieces, the symphony also allows for dissonant verticals and melodic sweep that recalls both Pärt’s own Third Symphony and the works of other 20th century symphonists, from Gorecki to Shostakovich.
Perhaps in order to clearly attest to the connection between text and symphony, the disc is balanced out with a fifteen-minute serving of fragments from one of his important choral works from the 1990s: Kanon Pokajanen. The composer has pointed out the relationship between the canon that was his reference point for the symphony and the texts upon which the latter choral work was based.
He says, “To my mind, the two works form a stylistic unity and belong together. I wanted to give the words an opportunity to choose their own sound. The result, which even caught me by surprise, was a piece wholly pervaded by this special Slavonic diction found only in church texts. It was the canon that clearly showed me how strongly choice of language preordains a work’s character.”
Kaljuste and the Estonian Chamber Choir are seasoned handlers of Pärt’s works, having made a number of recordings of his music. They do not disappoint here, providing a performance that juxtaposes the ethereal eternity found in the texts with an earthy and corporeally passionate rendering of the music.
In order to further fete Pärt, ECM also plans a lush reissue of their landmark 1984 recording, Tabula Rasa, complete with a generous accompanying book with newly commissioned essays about the composer.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Washington Composers Forum. Like any of these ventures, they’ve had some busy and some moribund periods. But more than most and especially through the last decade, the WCF has been a pretty consistent force, beacon and shelter for composers of all stripes (as I can personally attest to from my own long sojourn in the Seattle area). They’ve been great about getting the word on opportunities out to their members, sponsoring commissions, readings and concerts, and their Composer Spotlightseries (a different composer holds court each month, sharing whatever they think is important in their world) has been a fabulously smart and successful local draw for years now.
The WCF is having their celebratory concert this Thursday evening, May 6th, 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center (4649 Sunnyside Avenue North, 4th Floor, Seattle / Tickets at door. $5-15 sliding scale), as part of their Jack Straw-supported Transport Series. The concert of world and regional premieres will feature the Icicle Creek Piano Trio, Pacific Rims percussion quartet, violist Melia Watras, and the Seattle Phonographers Union. Highlighted on the program is the premiere of a new work by composer Wayne Horvitz, an inaugural commission by Washington Composers Forum, launching the organization’s new commissioning program. Other composers on the bill include Christopher Bailey, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Diane Thome, Huck Hodge and John Cage — and if you’ve never yet seen the Seattle Phonographers Union in action, you’re in for a spookily wonderful treat.
Helmut Lachenmann, 75 years old this year. How does the news strike us? If a composer in Europe, a better than 60%-70% chance that this is an important milestone. If a composer in America, less than 40%-30% chance of the same reaction. As a mainstream American classical concert-goer, the number is probably closer to 10% or less.
In the last couple decades, the influence of Lachenmann upon all kinds of composers has been immense, as have been the names of Franco Donatoni, Brian Ferneyhough, Beat Furrer, Gerard Grisey,Tristan Murail, Wolfgang Rihm, Kaija Saariaho… Yet the other thing they all share is how little they appear on the general American concert stage, and so the practically non-existent impact they’ve made on the minds of the average concert-goer.
To which the average concert-goer responds “I don’t know, it’s all just horribly weird sounds to me”; The unsympathetic composer responds “that’s because it sucks”, or “that’s just that elitist Euro-formalist bullshit.”
I tell you, it’s enough to make me think of Teabaggers and Green Party folks! In the end, if someone were to sit down — without their piled baggage of cultural assumptions blocking all ingress — and just listen, they’d find the common thread: all of these people just write music, some combination of sound and idea that totally engages their heart and mind, and can also that of anyone else who opens themselves to it. From a short interview a couple years ago, here is the “Euro-formalist” speaking about what is truly important in his music:
These aren’t the words of the hermetic formula-maker locked in the laboratory; they’re the words of a man simply in love with music, its history, instruments, people and ideas.
Lachenmann’s birthday is getting some respect in the form of a series of concerts devoted to his work:
Last Thursday SIGNAL, with the JACK Quartet, cellistLauren Radnofskyand Lachenmann himself as both soloist and speaker, kicked off their celebratory “march” through New York in Buffalo, Friday hit Rochester, and Saturday were on to Troy (review)– all this to culminate Thursday, April 1st in NYC’s Miller Theatre (116th St. & Broadway on the ground floor of Dodge Hall, 8PM, $25/15, 212-854-7799). The event includes an onstage discussion between Lachenmann and Seth Brodsky, as well as five works: Wiegenmusik (1963), Pression (1969-1970), Ein Kinderspiel (1980), String Quartet No. 2 “Reigen seliger Geister” (1989), “…Zwei Gefühle…” (1991-1992).
Coming up on the flank, this Tuesday March 30th the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble will make their own contribution to the festivities, at Good Shepherd Church (152 West 66th Street, NYC, 8PM, $20/10, 212-877-0685), with a number of chamber works featured.
If you’re curious to finally catch up but not in the area, there are a lot of recordings of Lachenmann’s music available; one of the best bets is to get an introduction from the good folk at La Folia. Dan Albertson’s 2004 survey is an especially good starter, and a quick search on their site will provide you with many more perceptive reviews for further listening.
“I was meant to be a composer and will be I’m sure. Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football – please.” – by Samuel Barber
For some, he’s a guilty pleasure; especially when one reads comments by the big guns (notably Copland) who condemn him with faint praise. But for those of us who want to sing and compose, Sam’s always an inspiration. Here’s his elegant recording of his own “Dover Beach,” for baritone and string quartet.
To paraphrase a comment I spotted once on Myspace, “We would have got you a card or something but we spent all of our money on booze, speed, and hookers”… So let’s just do with this shout-out to NewMusicBox, the American Music Center, the whole unsung crew and of course the one-and-only Frank J. Oteri, for seeing this most vital and consistently important modern classical site through its first decade.
Before appearing May 1st, 1999 there had never, ever been such a resource for living composers, performers and their music-hungry audience. Ten years on, there’s still no equal. It’s our island and oasis; though we might visit a host of other wonderful and worthwhile sites, we must visit NewMusicBox. Perfectly perfect? No. Plenty important? Yes! Here’s to the next ten, Frank.