Friday, September 17, 2010

Happy Birthday Arvo Part!

Arvo Part turned 75 on 11 September 2010, and the music world received the gift of the release of Mr. Part’s Symphony No. 4 (“Los Angeles”), composed in 2008. The symphony was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. on 9 January 2009. Since then, it has been performed in New York and, most recently, at the Proms in London, to rave reviews.

The symphony comes 38 years after Mr. Part’s Third Symphony and is dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been imprisoned in Siberia, presumably on political grounds, since 2003. The liner notes to the CD contain the quote “il perdono e le grazie sono necessarie in proporzione dell’ assurdita delle leggi e dell’ atrocita delle condanne.” Cesare Beccaria. (pardon and grace are necessary in proportion to the absurdity of the laws and the atrocity of the sentences). Mr. Part states that “the tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and dignity.”

I recently aired the new recording on my Sunday morning radio show, “Classical Sunrise,” and I have listened to the symphony several times both before and after. The piece is exceedingly beautiful and other-worldly, like much of Mr. Part’s music in recent decades. I am particularly a fan of his choral music, and the symphony has much the same spiritual and mystical dimension that I so admire in those works. And, like his choral music, the symphony is based on an underlying, albeit unspoken, text, the Orthodox Canon of the Guardian Angel. The liner notes tell us that even before Mr. Part began composing the symphony, he had been thinking about texts related to guardian angels. When he received the commission from the L.A. Philharmonic, whose namesake city means “the angels,” the choice of text was clear.

Symphony No. 4 is scored for strings, harp, and percussion. It opens in a slow shimmer of strings and reflects the meditative, minimalist style that Mr. Part developed and that he terms “tintinnabulation.” This aesthetic style stems from his study in the late 1960s and early 1970s of medieval music. The chimes throughout the work also evoke the characteristic ringing of church bells. The symphony has 3 movements: the first, marked “Con sublimita,” needs no explanation, as the entire work is sublime. The second movement, marked “Affannoso,” gave me some pause. This term in Italian could mean “labored” (i.e., as in breath) or, more figuratively, frantic. Which was it? It’s both. The slow, almost labored, pace of the strings in the second movement is punctuated with the insistent urging of percussion. Finally, the last movement is marked “Deciso,” i.e., decided, bold, or with decision. To me, music this ethereal somewhat belies the notion of “bold,” but towards the end of the movement the percussion decidedly underscores Mr. Part’s vision, until the percussion too fades away into the mist.

The 2010 ECM recording also includes fragments of Mr. Part’s “Kanon Pokajanen,” a 1997 composition performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste, to whom the work is dedicated.

 - Deborah Murray