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Here, we provide an overview of the music of renowned Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, which will be featured at our upcoming 2014-2015 season opener, “Estonian Night,” on Saturday, September 20th.
Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia, on September 11, 1935, and grew up in Tallinn. From 1958 to 1967, he was employed as a recording director and a composer of music for film and television for the music division of Estonian Radio. During this time, he studied composition under Heino Eller at the Tallinn Conservatory, graduating in 1963. His early works, written while he was still a student (a string quartet and some neoclassic piano music: two Sonatinas and a Partita in 1958) demonstrate the influence of Russian neoclassic composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
In the early 1970s, Pärt discovered a way of writing music that became uniquely his own. The first composition in Pärt’s new style was the piano piece Für Alina. In this piece, he explores widely spaced pitches on the piano that created a unique openness to the sound of the work. Pärt referred to this new style as “tintinnabuli.” The simplest way to describe this is that his choices of pitches “evoke the pealing of bells, the bells’ complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones, the gradual unfolding of patterns implicit in the sound itself, and the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux.” Pärt explains the term this way:
“Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers — in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises — and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”
When comparing all of Pärt’s post-1976 works, it becomes apparent that his approach to religion has given rise to a humbleness in his artistry. His music is often said to transport the listener to a “moment outside time,” emerging from silence at the beginning of the work and slowly returning to it as the piece closes. Whatever the intention of the pieces, many of his works can be said to reflect the inconceivable sadness that Mary and the disciples felt as Christ was crucified before them on the cross. Music critic Wolfgang Sandner states, “In a world in which Christian ideals are not universally acknowledged, this state of suffering (of the Passion of Christ without which all that comes after Christ cannot occur) is not one that must be artificially created.” The melodic figures, restricted to only a few notes, are powerful in that they are filled with both grace and sadness. Sandner notes that, “Arvo Pärt’s cryptic remarks on his compositions orbit around the words ‘silent’ and ‘beautiful’ — minimal, by now almost imperiled associative notions, but ones which reverberate his musical creations.”
Remarkably, many of the most powerful moments in Pärt’s compositions are a result of the simple action of a single line or the counterpoint created by only two voices. Dissonance is never meant to be abrasive but rather to convey the sense of suffering that is so apparent in many of Pärt’s works. “It has a beauty at once austere and sensuous that seems to be hardly of our time,” says Brian Morton in his book Contemporary Composers. “Yet there can be little doubt that the revelation of his music has been one of the most important factors in the development of a new sensibility in recent music.”
Pärt’s work is spotlighted in the Symphony’s 2014-2015 season opener program, which is offered in honor of his 80th birthday. As a featured guest for the evening, the Symphony welcomes pianist and fellow Estonian Diana Liiv, a favorite performer of Pärt’s works.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Tubin | Estonian Dance Suite
Pärt | Lamentate for piano and orchestra; Diana Liiv, piano
Pärt | Fur Alina, Für Anna Maria, and Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, for piano
Pärt | Tabula Rasa for solo violin, viola, and string orchestra with prepared piano
Sibelius | Kariela Suite
Sources: Biography by David E. Pinkerton II; Wolfgang Sandner, liner notes for Arvo Pärt Tabula Rasa; Donald J. Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 4th ed. (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988), 133; Morton and Collins, eds., Contemporary Composers, 729.
In November, Lexington Symphony musicians volunteered their time helping more than 70 Lexington High School students prepare for this year’s MMEA auditions. Concertmaster Liz Whitfield shares her thoughts about the experience.
It is 7:30 a.m. Not too early to be sipping coffee and reading the newspaper in the comfort of my own home, but rather early to be roaming the halls of Lexington High School. The corridors are teaming with teenagers, many in groups — so much talk about the previous day of school. Some are on the floor cramming for a test; others seem oblivious to the cacophony around them, enveloped in their own “surround-sound.” I feel out of place, but I am happily invisible in the crowd. My destination: the music wing.
I, along with many of my friends from Lexington Symphony, will spend an hour or so listening to a multitude of Lexington High student musicians who are preparing for auditions for the Massachusetts Music Educators Association (MMEA) Senior District Festival. Students from around Massachusetts compete for prized spots in orchestra, choir, band, and jazz combo. We are the fortunate ones, helping them on their way just a little.
Over the course of seven days, we attend 13 teaching blocks, during which we listen to up to 81 students. Students show up six to eight at a time and perform their audition pieces in front of their peers — a daunting proposition in and of itself.
Sixty minutes isn’t nearly long enough to listen to three viola players play two movements of a gorgeous piece by Schumann and three violinists play a Mozart concerto. But everyone has a chance to play a piece, along with — of course — a dreaded scale! I make suggestions about phrasing, give a little technical help, and occasionally recommend a little practice with a metronome. Mostly, though, I offer a great deal of encouragement.
I find myself wishing that I could spend a whole block with each student, one at a time. They are quiet, attentive to the performances of their peers, and empathetic about the trickier passages. All too soon, the buzzer interrupts us, calling the kids to their next adventure in learning.
When all is said and done, the students are very appreciative — and hopefully a little better prepared for their auditions. As passionate musicians and devoted members of Lexington Symphony, we are thankful to have had the opportunity to share just a little of our “craft” with these talented young people.
On my way home, I can’t help but think about the Mozart concerto. Perhaps I will make the time to do a little work on it — with a metronome!
If you are coming to one of our Holiday POPS! concerts this Friday, December 6th, in addition to your singing voice we hope you will consider bringing a contribution for the Lexington Food Pantry to help support families and children in need and Project 351.
Talia Ruxin, an 8th-grader from Lexington, has organized the food drive at our Holiday POPS! concerts as an Ambassador of Project 351 — a service leadership program that unites inspiring young leaders from every city and town in the state for a year of enrichment, leadership development, and service. Talia is one of more than 400 8th-grade Ambassadors who were nominated and selected by educators for their exemplary ethics, kindness, compassion, humility, and generosity of spirit.
To support Project 351 in its efforts to ensure that local children and families are nourished during the winter months, simply drop off your contributions as you enter Cary Hall for one of our Holiday POPS! concerts.
Please bring one or more of the following items ONLY:
tuna fish (5.7-ounce cans)
peanut butter (15-ounce jars)
canned fruit (16-ounce cans)
Lexington Symphony is pleased to be supporting Talia in her efforts to build skills, confidence, empathy, and compassion, and to engage with and help her community.