Monday, February 20, 2017

Final concert of Arvo Pärt Festival sounds the search for the eternal

Although the fast pace of modern life and technology has made many people addicted to anything short and shocking, there are still those who search for things that are slower and deeper. They stuffed Kaul Auditorium to the brim last Sunday (February 12) for the final concert of the Arvo Pärt Festival and were rewarded with superb performances by Cappella Romana and the Third Angle New Music Ensemble. The program, led by Alexander Lingas, featured music by Pärt, James MacMillan, and John Tavener that drew inspiration from ancient hymns. Even the secular piece by Thanos Mikroutsikos shared a meditative sentiment that fit naturally with the others. It is too bad that Kaul Auditorium does not have some reverberation. A little bit of reverb would have warmed up the sound even more and added the extra bit of awe.

The twenty-five singers of Cappella Romana filled the hall with a gorgeous sound, starting with “Da pacem Domine” (“Give peace, Lord”), which Pärt wrote in response to the train bombings in Madrid in March of 2004. Divided into four parts, the men and women delivered the somber text with well-balanced, resonating, sustained yet bell-like tones (including some subterranean notes for the basses) that placed everyone in a meditative spell alongside the feeling of unending expansiveness.

Another hypnotic piece was MacMillan’s “Who are these angels?” Apparently, MacMilan wrote some of the music when he was 17 years old and then refashioned it in 2009. The men sang a Latin text attributed to Augustine that probes mankind’s mortality with a series of questions. The women responded with the refrain “Who are these angels and how shall I know them?,” singing with a purity of tone and zero vibrato that was absolutely ethereal and tranquil. The string quartet fluttered about, ascending to some very high notes and delicate, free-range glissandi that suggested an angelic response. An additional highlight was a brief, yet beautiful solo by violist Adam LaMotte.

Pärt’s“Alleluia-Tropus” (2008) received its U.S. premiere at this concert. Sung in Church Slavonic, the music featured a joyful refrain of “Alleluias.” Written as a dismissal hymn for St. Nicholas, the final “Alleluia” created a sense of suspension because it was sustained for a long time.

“Funeral Canticle,” composed by Tavener in 1996 in memory of his father, was used in Terrance Malick’s film “The Tree of Life.” The solos, sung in Byzantine Greek by John Boyer, featured microtonal adjustments that sounded very Middle Eastern. Each verse that the choir sang started with a simple melody that morphed into harmonically intertwined passages. Overall, the text gave me the sense of someone climbing stairs that went higher and higher.

Slowly descending and ascending lines were also expressed in Mikroutsikos “Slow Motion,” an orchestra-only piece. The music paralleled the austere and plaintive call of the other pieces on the program but without the religious context.

The final piece on the program, Pärt’s “Te Deum” (“Thee, O God, we praise”), began with an otherworldly drone from the wind harp, played from a recording. The choir sounded magnificent with excellent dynamics, including impressive double-fortes, for example, with the words “pleni sunt caeli et terra maiestatis gloriae tuae” (“Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory”). Other highlights of the piece included crystalline lines from the women and a lovely solo by soprano Catherine van der Salm. The final “Sanctus” was light and feathery. The singers were supported with sensitively by the orchestra, which included the big chords from the prepared piano (Susan DeWitt Smith) that punctuated the end of a couple of passages.

For those who missed the concert, the good news is that the a cappella pieces from the program will be part of a new recording by Cappella Romana. Kudos to the ensemble and to producer Mark Powell for bringing such powerful music to Portland.

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