Published on June 6th, 2014 | by Rob Rubsam


Concert Review: Carnegie Hall – Arvo Pärt

The Feedback Society’s Rob Rubsam goes to Carnegie Hall.  Not with practice, as the joke goes, but to be moved by Arvo Pärt’s transcendent music.

I am in the cheap seats at Carnegie Hall.  Well, the cheapest I could find, anyway: $30 for an obscured-view ticket in the fourth balcony, up something like nine sets of stairs, perched on the edge of the vertiginous balcony steps.  My legs don’t really fit, so I sit turned into the aisle, peering over the low edge to the floor below.  The room is packed, sold out, and by the time of performance near every seat is full.  The crowd is a diverse one, with young hipsters, elderly Eastern Orthodox bishops in full adornment, and the overdressed and middle aged filling out the house.  I later find out Bjork, Antony, and Keanu Reeves are also in attendance.

We are all here to see a master, and before the music starts I scan the preponderance of pale bald heads for his.  Arvo Pärt has been producing music of the transcendent and devotional variety for a lifetime, endlessly tweaking, purifying, distilling, varying.  The program tonight favors his biggest works, employing the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in moments of near silence and booming agony.  It music that is deeply felt, by the composer and the audience alike, relevant in moments of pain and triumph, in contemplations of mundaneness and the divine.  As performed tonight, the music ignores the earthly in favor of the infinite, simultaneously inward and upward seeking.

Much has been made of Pärt’s religious beliefs, and with good reason, for they are the engine that powers all of his music and the pool from which it draws vitality.  Much has also been made of the secular acceptance of such overtly religious music, which is on full display in the humanist palace of Carnegie Hall.  The resultant sound is described as ‘spiritual,’ a sanitized half-word for those who feel deep stirrings but seem unable to imagine a cause for them outside their own head.  Pärt walks this line and has acknowledged its precariousness.  Though St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers organized all of his U.S. appearances, and planned a number of panels to tease out the deep religiosity of his music, the composer himself downplayed the connection in interviews, stressing only that the listener feel something.

It’s not an epic task.  Pärt’s music takes qualities like sparseness and openness and vivisects them, revealing new cavities, new spaces, all untraveled even in the most common of forms.  For the first two pieces of the program he does this without words, ‘Fratres’ and my personal favorite ‘Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten’ plumbing wells of feeling in the audience.  While I enjoy Pärt’s work in recorded form, there is no comparison to seeing it performed.  The performers are expertly divided into sections, blocks, and they move in tandem and sometimes in opposition, various speeds dividing the instruments as the cellos and the violins and violas and basses play in unison.  For ‘Cantus’ this is especially instructive, taking the sometimes-brittle tones and laying them bare, the result a vibrating, twisting thing like a cross-section of a rip tide.

After these two pieces the choir comes out on stage for a performance of ‘Adam’s Lament,’ a recent work full of iciness and bombast, an expression of grief and longing so total I tear up during it.  For only this song the words are projected behind the singers, narrating the fall from Eden and Adam’s futile lashing against the will of God.  I had never listened to a piece of Pärt’s with a text before, but the addition of a translation for the native Russian immeasurably improved my understanding for and appreciation of ‘Adam’s Lament,’ to the point where listening again on CD struck me as a pale imitation.  Perhaps it was; you can’t beat Carnegie Hall’s perfect acoustics.  But still, the crescendoing of the music in accordance with Adam’s grief and suffering cannot be denied.  Again, Pärt touches the strongest chords when he evokes God.

I think back to earlier in the day, when I wandered through the upper floors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In the Met’s Asian Wing I passed Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with closed eyes and hands held in mudras from Thailand, China, Tibet, India, Japan.  They sit behind glass and on pedestals beside tapestries, pots, statues, and the roof of a Jain temple, some stone, others thickly lacquered wood, serene and instructive and on occasion vengeful.  By rendering these religious icons as art they are in a certain sense demystified, and therefore disarmed, stripped bare of centuries of tradition into an easily ignored totem among so many others.  This bothers me, even though I know it shouldn’t.  It reflects a greater cultural shift toward secularization, removing religion to the fringes of our selves and our countenances until it becomes an easily amputated thing.  A starving Shakyamuni becomes art; Pärt’s Orthodox exaltations are just music.

But perhaps there is another way to look at it.  Some of my first interactions with non-Christian religions came at museums like the Met, where I wandered through halls of Mughal art without understanding its origin; now, walking again, patterns leap out of my proto-memories but with greater clarity, substance.  Maybe when we see the teaching Siddhartha, without knowing it we contemplate suffering and impermanence, and when we see Pärt’s music performed, as in ‘Adam’s Lament,’ we feel most deeply man’s disconnect from the divine, the inadequacy of his desires.  We attempt to deconsecrate these objects and these pieces, but they find a way to re-enter our lives anew.  Perhaps the truth never really dies.

After the concert closes with a rousing ‘Te Deum,’ the composer walks up the aisle and onstage for a standing ovation.  He is a tiny man, thin and bony, and the bouquets handed to him seem half his size.  But he receives enough adoration for a goliath from the crowd, and he bows, leaves the stage, bows, again and again.  Our applause is deafening.  He has earned all of it.

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About the Author

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is a freelance writer and itinerant resident of upstate New York. His writing about music has been published at CVLT Nation, Tom Tom Magazine, The Rumpus, Burning Ambulance, Spinner, Popmatters, and others. When not contemplating giant squids or erecting a standing stone in his backyard, he tweets at @millenialistfun. Do not contact him with your black mass-related inquiries, please.

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