Another concert for today

i’ve been saying that classical music  needs to be a contemporary art. Gave an example here of how it can be. Here’s another one.

Imagine the Kennedy Center concert hall at 6 PM this Tuesday, packed with people attending a concert of works by a living composer. The concert, featuring an orchestra and chorus, was scheduled as one of the Center’s daily Millennium Stage productions, which take place in one part of the lobby, with removable chairs, for what’s looked, to me, like a couple of hundred people.

But there was more demand for this one, so they moved it into their concert hall, capacity 2400. [Correction: the concert was planned from the start as something that would have a large audience. It was originally scheduled for the Kennedy Center opera house, and moved into the concert hall due to a scheduling conflict.] 

And it was packed. When it was announced that the composer was in the audience, people stood up, turned around to see the man in his box, and roared. At the end of the performance, when the composer came on stage to take a bow, again the audience rose to its feet and shouted. People took photos on their cell phones.

part blogWho was the composer? Arvo Pärt. Performing were the beyond superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the equally fine (at least in this music) Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Tallinn being the capital of Estonia; Pärt, of course, is Estonian. And while there were some Estonians (to judge from their speech) near Anne and me in the orchestra seats, the whole crowd couldn’t have been Estonina. Pärt has American fans. And really, just being Estonia’s most famous living classical composer wouldn’t be enough to get Estonians to roar. They also have to love his work. Do Americans roar for John Adams? (Or pick whoever else you think is more famous.)

The real thing

So here you had a genuinely contemporary classical event. Genuinely contemporary, because it had a genuine contemporary audience, people of many ages and styles who don’t look like they’re classical music insiders, or even classical music fans. Certainly these weren’t the ingroupers I see at smaller DC new music events (and couldn’t be, because there were so many of them). Least of all were they the academic types (some rumpled, some precise, most older) whom I see at new music shows at the Library of Congress.

And Pärt’s music does have a contemporary echo. It speaks to the longing people have for a spiritual connection, some spiritual depth, some connection with a wider universe, one that’s not tied to any religion or other scheme of spiritual thought. Which is true for Pärt even though he himself is Russian Orthodox. And draws audible inspiration from Gregorian Chant, though of course chant has found itself sometimes on the pop charts, because it seems timeless (rather than medieval and Catholic), and speaks to the same need.

Here’s what the program was:


Adam’s Lament [a comparatively recent Pärt piece, dating from 2009]

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

Te Deum

This is uncompromising music. You can hear that for yourself; as happens for all Millennium stage events, a concert video is archived online. Some people in the thornier undergrowth of new classical music might think Pärt is simplistic, but that may not make him easy to listen to, in large, long doses. He never strives for effect, never does anything flashy, never writes pretty tunes, never indulges in lush or gorgeous harmony. I’d guess that people listening shallowly would quickly be bored. If you like this work, it’s in some way taking you deep. (Note that Adam’s Lament and the Te Deum are both long pieces.)

Not at all simple

And I myself would never find Pärt simplistic. In fact, this concert was a wakeup call for me. I’ve known Pärt’s work for years, and loved hearing it, but I also had the impression — a very facile one — that Pärt’s pieces largely did the same thing, that they just hovered there, more or less the way Fratres does. My wife and I get each new Pärt release, on ECM Records (which records all or most of his work), and each time one arrives, I look at it and think, “Well, I should listen to that sometime.” But then I don’t, because I’ve had the — God, so facile — idea that I already know what it will sound like.

Which is dead wrong. Adam’s Lament and the Te Deum are pieces that change a lot, that show a composer crafting each section, each phrase, and each note, rather than letting a process work itself out (the classic miminalist procedure), or working out music that, pretty much by itself, hangs there in space, repeating what sounds like very simple things. Adam’s Lament reminded me, at some distance (because of its tone, and maybe because of some jagged thrusts in the strings), of Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden. 

The Te Deum divides in an apparently simple way into sections, many arising from something close (sometimes very close) to Gregorian chant. The wonder comes in how the sections are worked out, and maybe most notably in how they’re contrasted, how the beginning of each new one arrests your attention. I remember one that began with a jangly high minor triad on a prepared piano, about the last sound I would have expected, based on what went before (well, anyway, the last sound in whatever arsenal of sounds I could imagine Pärt having for this piece; obviously a death metal riff or some Charles Wuorinen dissonance would have been completely unexpected).

Though here I should add that it wasn’t just that the prepared piano chord was the right sound for that moment, but also that it was played with precisely the right force. These musicians know their country’s composer. They know exactly how he should be played, and they play him with 1000% conviction. Which is another reason the concert seemed contemporary. It engaged the people giving it in an endeavor vivid for them right now, with none of its significance rooted in musical history.

The piece that most gripped me was the Britten Cantus. I may have heard it before (I know I’ve heard the Te Deum, which makes it extra silly that I had such a facile idea of what Pärt writes). But I don’t know for sure. It’s a process piece, combining downward scales in varying slow speeds into a texture (a curtain of diatonic dissonance) that feels like it’s falling through vast, maybe infinite space. Until finally it stops (though I can’t say it comes to rest) on a minor triad.

This got to me physically. I bent forward, almost doubling over in my chair. And it got to me morally. At one point I found myself thinking of something bad that I once did, something I regret. And now I regretted it with pangs I don’t remember feeling in the past. The music made me want to be better.


Another facile thought: Change made for clarification: Another facile thought I’d had in the past: I used to put Pärt somewhere off to the side, when I imagined a map of new classical music. Here were all the top composers, and there, off in a corner, was Pärt. He’s one of the greatest living composers, maybe the very greatest, though his music has such moral force that calling it “great” or ranking it against other music seems trivial.

And this — to anticipate points I’ll want to make in the future at greater length — is one reason the concert was so powerful. And felt more contemporary than most other performances of new classical music. The music was so strong. Often, I think (and here I anticipate some controversy), concerts of new classical music are programmed without enough thought about the quality of the work, or its interest for any conceivable audience. That, I think, is because no one really expects to have an audience, and because new work still sits on the margins of the classical world, so we imagine that in itself it has some inherent force, the force of something new struggling to be born.

But those days, for most of the music performed on these concerts (which I’ve been going to for 40 years), that’s not happening. The musical styles, along with their content, were born long ago, and the mere fact that the standard classical audience isn’t into them doesn’t give the music any power. Next week I expect to have a guest post here that shows what happened when a new music performing group came to understand these problems, and figured out what to do about them, how to program concerts that an audience would want to go to. (And no, for the thousandth time, this doesn’t involve anything remotely like dumbing down.)

You’ll see, too, in future posts, that I don’t think classical concerts have to feature contemporary works to feel contemporary. How the old music, too, can sound new is something very important to talk about.

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  1. says

    The concert’s musical observations read honest if uneven, but then you emerge with these awesomely powerful and utterly true lines: “Often, I think (and here I anticipate some controversy), concerts of new classical music are programmed without enough thought about the quality of the work, or its interest for any conceivable audience. That, I think, is because no one really expects to have an audience, and because new work still sits on the margins of the classical world, so we imagine that in itself it has some inherent force, the force of something new struggling to be born. But those days, for most of the music performed on these concerts (which I’ve been going to for 40 years), that’s not happening. The musical styles, along with their content, were born long ago, and the mere fact that the standard classical audience isn’t into them doesn’t give the music any power.”

    Awesome, Greg. Bravo!

  2. says

    This concert has made me think about more things in the vein of “classical music crisis”:

    1) Arvo Part was in his 40’s when he started composing this very original inspiring music. He would have been “too old” to enter a a young gun competition to write music that might connect with the contemporary audience. Now he is 78 – and HE is the composer that younger contemporaries are going to see. Grantmakers and competitions need to think about how old the true innovators tend to be, as I argued in one of my guest blogs:

    2) No music education, explanatory lectures, or program notes are needed for the audience to understand this music, which is NOT dumbed down. The connection is intuitive and transcends language. That is what music is all about. Arvo Part was able to think out of the box to reach people where they are culturally while creating music of substance. It IS possible!

    3) Again, the contemporary audience is happy to sit in silent reverence to this music. Arvo Part reached a wider audience with the actual music, rather than informal dress, videos, and other peripheral “innovations”. It’s all about the music!

    • says

      Amen to those, Lisa. And without hampering maestro Pärt’s beliefs, there are those of us that know Music = God. That’s all you need, really. But, sticking to the performed notes, you are so correct: no external aids needed when it’s heartfelt, has a purpose, and is good or better.

  3. Ariel says

    Mr. Sandow in desperation to prove his theories on new music presents us with this
    writer of music Arvo Part as a present day master . This in all seriousness – in the year 2014 ; perhaps these names may enlighten:
    Palestrina (1500s) Monteverdi (1600s ) Bach
    (1700s) down through the 1800s too many to name
    to 1900s Orff to Britten to Penderecki . all
    having written great innovative choral master works , We then come to Mr. Part who one suspects if he has an original thought (year 2014)
    on writing choral music he was going to keep it a secret from us . His music writing is all retrograde under the guise of being
    contemporary with the little borrowed touches .of modernity .Take any
    of the Palestrina works and they ring more
    true to-day as choral then any of the imitations by
    Mr. Part whose audience one suspects is
    comprised of “classical ” music lovers” who
    willingly embrace the” new ” music providing it all sounds much like the past .
    Too bad this Estonian” contemporary” music
    event didn’t feature music of the 21st century instead an imitation of the past .

  4. says

    Ariel, originality is not a criteria for evaluating the aesthetics of a musical work. That’s precisely the modernist fallacy that has sent many a composer off the deep end. Originality is a needless demand of some people’s egos, nothing more. All great art references other art, Pärt composes from his heart and many people love his music for all the right reasons.

    • Ariel says

      Mr. Balio – As much as one may decry originality it
      is the driving force of all human endeavour.
      It is beaten out for most at an early age
      “to be like everyone else ” From the child that
      presents you with a strange crayon drawing to Beethoven who proclaimed “I allow it ” the driving force of life is originality . This
      originality is stated in many ways ,from
      the kitchen to the concert hall and faces a continuous onslaught from what one may consider the drones of the world .The truly
      great creators by their powerful originality
      (be they musician , artist , poet )compels one
      to think,hear and see differently and in doing so can be upsetting to most who are
      quite content with the status quo . – From Cimabue to Turner to Francis Bacon from
      Palestrina , Haydn . Beethoven , Chopin .
      Stravinsky to Penderecki their originality
      results in us seeing and hearing differently. A Mozart piano sonata is not a Chopin piano sonata.All originality is ego.The heart is a pump -I was not aware there were “right ”
      reasons as opposed to wrong reasons to
      appreciate a work that claims to status of art . You might enlighten us .That many people like the work of Mr.Part is not surprising .my point being that if one likes his work (yr. 2014) why not go to the original (yr 1500) it being so much better .Still am
      curious about the “right ” reasons to appreciate a work of art .

      • says

        There’s nothing wrong with originality. It’s just a secondary feature that isn’t what makes or breaks music. It has nothing to do with the substance of what is happening. It’s more of the political realm.

      • richard says

        I usually avoid feeding the trolls, but I can’t resist. Having studied 16th century polyphony, I can assure you that if Mr. Part turned in one of his works as a counterpoint assignment, he would receive a failing grade. Part’s “stylo antico” only sounds like Palestrina et al to the musically uneducated.

  5. MWnyc says

    Good post, Greg.

    I have an Arvo Pärt t-shirt. (It was a promotional item for one of the several recordings of his music that Harmonia Mundi has released.)

    Almost every time I wear my Pärt t-shirt beyond my immediate neighborhood, I have one or more strangers stop to tell me how much they like his music. More than a few of them don’t realize that Pärt’s work qualifies as “classical music”. And I’m pretty sure there are at least a few others who sort of pretend to themselves that Pärt doesn’t really count – because they don’t like to think of themselves as the kind of uncool people who like classical music.

    I also suspect that there are concert programmers who know that Pärt’s music sells tickets but shy away from programming it because they worry about losing caste within the classical industry due to attitudes like the contempt in Ariel’s comment.

  6. Gail Obenreder O'Donnell says

    This was such a memorable concert — performers, concept, audience. I was also at Carnegie Hall the following Saturday, where it was the same — except that those 2000+ audience members paid for their tickets. They roared at the beginning, they stood and roared some more at the end, the musicians were magnificent. And the audience — classical types, Eastern Orthodox clergy, Brooklyn indie folks, musicians both vocalists and instrumentalists and a slew of NYC music lovers — was riveted. Thrilling in both places. Kudos to the Arvo Part project of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (NYC) that made this happen, and to all those who supported this project over its years of development. Thank you.

  7. ariel says

    Richard is being too harsh with Mr.Part . To those of us who have acquaintance with Fux’s Gradus Ad Parnassum etc . Mr.Part’s writings suggest that
    he is a capable technical writer of little originality who
    could possibly get the passing counterpoint
    grade that Richard would deny him . One recalls the fun Fritz Kreisler had with the
    “stylo -antico “.Richard in his haste to” feed the trolls” contradicts himself in his closing
    observation on the musically uneducated .