This weekend Ireland welcomed Arvo Pärt to its capital in one of the most eagerly anticipated festivals of music in Ireland since Steve Reich's appearance at the Living Music Festival in 2006.
Running from Friday 15 to Sunday 17 February this year's festival included six concerts in four venues across the city, with James MacMillan assuming the role of Artistic Director.
Born in Estonia in 1935 Pärt, like so many of his contemporaries, was affected by the consuming occupation of Soviet forces. It was not until the 1970s, after experimenting with neo-classical, neo-Baroque and serial techniques, that Pärt began to compose in the 'tintinnabuli' technique for which he is most celebrated. Two-part homophony forms the basis of this distinctive sound, one voice moving by step around a central pitch while the 'tintinnabuli' voice uses the notes of the tonic triad, both voices following a predetermined structure. The composer describes the technique thus:
'I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements - with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.'
This technique, coupled with Pärt's overtly Christian philosophy, has earned him the title of 'Holy Minimalist', similar to contemporaries John Tavener and Henryk Górecki. That is not to say, however, that the religious and spiritual nature of Pärt's music is the defining characteristic of his oeuvre, but it undoubtedly accounts, to a large extent, for its appeal to such a broad audience. Indeed, not only were the weekend's concerts entirely sold out, to a diverse audience, there were queues at each event in desperate hope of returns.
Nonetheless, during the festival all periods of the composer's work were reflected. Although the first event of the weekend was an education workshop performance with Paul Rissmann and students of DIT Conservatory of Music and the Royal Irish Academy of Music, the opening concert featured performances of Pärt's Credo from 1968 as well as the Berliner Messe from the early 90s, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir at the National Concert Hall. Originally written for chorus and organ, a revised version of Berliner Messe for choir and string orchestra was performed. The text, like many of Pärt's liturgical works, is in Latin and follows the conventional mass structure, with four responsorial 'Alleluia' movements and the 'Veni Sancte Spiritus' inserted between the 'Gloria' and 'Credo'; it offers a more serene representation of faith than the early Credo that ended the concert. Betraying the influence of Eastern and Russian contemporaries, the Credo contrasts frustrated uncertainty with tranquil quotations of Bach's C major Prelude that surprised many listeners, but it was masterfully controlled by conductor Tonu Kaljuste.
Opening the concert was one of Pärt's most recent compositions, Lamentate, with Joanna MacGregor on piano. Commissioned by Tate Modern, the piece was inspired by Anish Kapoor's sculpture 'Marsyas', which dominated the Turbine Hall in 2003. The work is a much darker and more intense offering than those to which Pärt fans are usually accustomed, the opening piano section conveying a brutal urgency that was convincingly mirrored in MacGregor's expressive performance.
Saturday's events moved to Christchurch Cathedral; Stephen Layton and Polyphony gave an a capella performance of Pärt sacred vocal music and Poulenc motets at 1pm, whilst the Hilliard Ensemble and the National Chamber Choir performed Pärt's Passio at 8pm. In the former, Polyphony provided a stunning performance, as richly varied in tonal colour and expression as it was in dynamic range. The Poulenc motets were particular highlights, although I remain unsure as to whether dispersing them amongst the Pärt compositions was a wise choice. The evening performance of the Passio included stunning contributions by the Hilliard Ensemble (and counter-tenor David James in particular), who are noted for their Pärt recordings, but one that ultimately failed to move me. It is an austere work; the rhythm is entirely determined by the Latin text; the texture is layered in a hypnotic, repeating, systematic way; it only deviates from a single minor mode triad for the final plagal cadence and difficult for someone who does not wholeheartedly subscribe to the minimalist movement. It must still be said that the performance was compelling, if only because of the level of commitment to the work by those on stage.
Following a Sunday morning composition seminar attended by Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan (see below for a report of that event), the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet gave a recital in the beautiful surroundings of the National Gallery of Ireland. Beginning with one of Pärt's most recognised and oft-arranged works, Fratres, here in string quartet form, the performance was solid, if uninspiring, and the difficult harmonics in need of more acute tuning. The performance proceeded with Lamentations of the Myrrhbearer by the leader of the morning seminar, Ivan Moody, and Pärt's short Psalom, his only work written originally for string quartet. Finishing with Pärt's Summa in arrangement for string quartet; although the piece was written to be performed senza vibrato, in this performance the phrases were too curt and the tempo too rushed to fully convey the profound spirituality that is associated with such 'tintinnabuli' works. Such profundity was apparent, however, in the preceding performance of Schnittke's Piano Quintet, again with Joanna MacGregor on piano. Written in 1974 after the death of the composer's mother, the intensity of loss and search for meaning was realised in this piece: the final movement with its bittersweet passacaglia theme on piano repeated fourteen times almost served as a lesson in how subtle and contemplative such minimalist techniques can be in another context.
Ireland's leading contemporary music group, the Crash Ensemble, were the chosen artists for the intermediate concert of the day in the Samuel Beckett Theatre at Trinity College Dublin. The first half of the concert was given over to three young Dutch composers: Jacob ter Veldhuis, Martijn Padding and Peter Adriaansz. Again, it was interesting to juxtapose Pärt's compositions with another facet of minimalism, but only Ter Veldhuis' Jesus is Coming stood out; a special arrangement for the Crash Ensemble of the original recorder quartet scoring, the work features voice samples of Christian preachers and two young girls, married into a largely tonal layered texture. In the second half of the concert Pärt's pioneering tintinnabuli work Für Alina was coupled with a more recent piece, Für Alina Maria. An arrangement of Spiegel im Spiegel for clarinet and piano, although sensitively performed by Deirdre O'Leary and Andrew Zolinsky, lost a great deal of the ethereal allure with which the original violin and its long unbroken phrases could imbue the piece. Closing out the concert was the 1985 work Stabat Mater, written for soprano, alto and tenor voices, violin, viola and cello. A stark and sober work, it was unfortunate that some slips in intonation and the cluttered surroundings detracted from the intimacy of what is essentially an extended chamber work.
The final concert of the festival returned to the National Concert Hall, in this instance featuring the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under the baton of David Brophy. Pärt's debt to Bach was explored in the 1964 work Collage über B-A-C-H and Wenn Bach Bienen gezuchtet hatte from 1976. The former is the embodiment of Pärt's experimentation with collage in its most plain form, dissonant chords and note clusters interrupting the baroque dance movements in aggressive fashion. The latter, if not a musical joke, is at least a light-hearted amusing work, albeit with menacing swarms threatening the Bachian orderliness.
One of Pärt's most famous pieces Tabula Rasa was coupled with the more recent Passacaglia, both works showcasing violinists Ian Humphries and Darragh Morgan. Originally written for Gidon Kremer, Tabula Rasa also uses prepared piano to great atmospheric effect, skilfully played on the evening by David Leigh. A work that today, thirty years after its premiere, can still be breathtaking in its simplicity, here lacked in refinement. In particular, Darragh Morgan seemed too detached from his surroundings to achieve a full rapport with the other musicians; a little more fluidity and projection from both violinists would have ensured a more sonorous experience.
The perennial favourite Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, too, was disappointing, particularly taking on the role of closing the festival. Although the RTÉ Concert Orchestra has improved under the guidance of David Brophy since his appointment last year, there is still room for improvement from the ensemble. The Cantus unfurls from a single note on tubular bell, each voice playing a descending scale and gathering in emotional power. This performance, however, was too hurried. The inner counterpoint was not drawn out; the resulting tension of triads against descending scale was glossed over and the overwhelming power and resonance lost. Nonetheless, the performance was greeted, as were the majority of events this weekend, with rapturous applause and a lengthy standing ovation.
My own highlight of the evening, if not the festival, was the world premiere performance of RTÉ Commission This is how it feels (Another Bolero) by Irish composer David Fennessy (b. 1976). The composer's own remarks in respect to the piece include the realisation that 'the shape of the whole piece is actually the detailed plotting of a journey from the simplicity of a touched harmonic to the seductive, sophisticated tone of a "stopped" note'. Indeed, the work was engaging from the outset, as primitive urgings not unlike Stravinsky's, yet at the same time utterly fresh and distinctive, accumulated over a transfixing ostinato-like figure in timpani, entirely sure in its direction.
Such was the success of this work, however, that it begs the question why the RTÉ Living Music Festival does not provide a bigger platform for Irish composers. Whilst I offer genuine congratulation to the tireless work of the RTE organising committee, the authoritative presence of James MacMillan throughout the weekend and all ensembles and performers involved in the festival, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the festival's fundamental purpose. Looking over the last three years, the festival has featured Steve Reich, John Adams and now Arvo Pärt: not only do all three inhabit a similar compositional style, none have any particular connection with Ireland or the future of music in this country. Granted, these composers have the 'big-name' appeal that will draw a large audience and media attention, but considering that RTÉ is in fact 'owned by the Irish people' it may now be incumbent upon us to call for RTÉ to provide a platform for exposing the wealth of Irish compositional talent that is certainly available.
RTÉ Living Music Festival Composition Seminar Led by Ivan Moody
Lecture Theatre, National Gallery of Ireland
With a festival almost exclusively dedicated to the music of Arvo Pärt, a composer famed for the inherent spirituality in his music, it came as no surprise that this composition seminar led by the composer and Orthodox priest Ivan Moody would deal with aspects of spirituality in contemporary music. Moody, unaware of his target audience, chose the path of accessibility over a detailed analytical session, which for his purposes was of great benefit. Drawing on musical examples from Pärt and Moody himself, whilst also alluding to composers often closely associated with this type of music ('Holy Minimalism' - a term Moody himself finds derogatory) such as Górecki, Macmillan, and Tavener, Moody attempted to liken this style of composition to religious icons and questioned whether or not this kind of music could serve the same function aurally as icons can visually, this function being incarnation.
Acknowledging that most modern composition exists outside the church, Moody continued on to discuss the treatment of text in such a compositional style, stating that it should be cold, inexpressive, functioning for the contemplation of higher things. He used Pärt's Passio to illustrate this point, a work heard on the previous night of the festival, and highlighted the black and white nature of the text setting, emphasising that this type of composition only reveals its secret through a certain type of listening. Moody proceeded to discuss his own composition Passion and Resurrection in a similar light, and discussed the problems of marrying dramatic music with static mystical allusions. Thus, Moody described his Passion and Resurrection as a series of static events, where the narrative is comprehensible, resulting in an incarnate example of the Passion.
Following this Moody discussed a more recent Pärt composition, I am the True Vine (1996), highlighting Pärt's tintinnabuli technique whilst also indicating four important structural silences, acting as pillars, and also maintained the importance Pärt attaches to silence.
Moody concluded by highlighting that he, Pärt and other aforementioned composers all inspire to incarnate their faith through their music; if they are unsuccessful in this act, then their music is of little use.
The question and answer session that followed unfortunately proved to be unstimulating, with many of the questions asked serving only to fulfil narcissism rather than seeking knowledge. Nevertheless, this was an interesting paper from a theological point of view, offering an insightful glimpse at 'incarnate' music from a sincere theologian, suffering for the most part from the lack of imaginative questioning.
By Seán Clancy
RTÉ Lyric FM will broadcast highlights of the festival on Sunday 24 February at 8pm.
Read recent concert reviews, including Andras Schiff's concert with the COE in Dublin, here.