'People don’t go to church anymore, they listen to Arvo Pärt for a moment of peace,' soprano Lore Binon says. She is one of the many young musicians who will be celebrating the remarkable revival of the Estonian master at Flagey next weekend.
The talent to strike your listeners right in the heart with very simple melodies. That is what makes Arvo Pärt (82) the most-performed living contemporary composer.
Revue Blanche, the Brussels-based chamber music ensemble of which Lore Binon is a member, once performed a programme with a Baltic Sea theme that included a number of the Estonian composer’s works. That set, with which they will kick-off the Arvo Pärt Weekend at Flagey, includes “Spiegel im Spiegel”, the classical 1978 composition that has acquired the status of a hit in recent years.
Last year, the calming piece reached the third place in the listener-chosen classical Top 100 of the Flemish radio station Klara. Pärt thus beat composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, and Orff.
“Every time we perform the piece, we feel a special kind of energy and emotion in our audience,” harpist Anouk Sturtewagen tells us. She hosts the Revue Blanche rehearsals in her living room in Sint-Joost-ten-Node/Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. “He puts his listeners in a trance with music that seems to have assumed the role of religion.”
According to viola player Kris Hellemans that is because his sacral music evokes a universal feeling of community. “Compositions like ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ offer a serene counterbalance to our chaotic and noisy lives. The music is so simple that you can explain or understand it in ten seconds, but to let it really sink in you need to sit down for ten minutes. The arc of tension forces you to listen to the whole piece until the end. Pärt drags you along from beginning to end.”
His best-known compositions “Fratres” (1977), “Tabula Rasa” (1977), and “Spiegel im Spiegel” date from the second half of the 1970s. Influenced by minimal music, the Estonian, who was then still a Soviet citizen, introduced his own Tintinnabuli style in which broken triads are played around one melodic voice that seems to continue infinitely. The title of his hit refers to mirrors that reflect one another infinitely and precisely that sense of infinity.
Hellemans performed his first Pärt piece, “Fratres”, with the string ensemble I Fiamminghi. In February, he will also perform “Tabula Rasa” with the Flanders Symphony Orchestra. At Flagey, he and Sturtewagen will play “Spiegel im Spiegel” as a duo. It’s certainly not easy, Hellemans explains. “It is such a simple piece that the slightest imperfection is immediately obvious to everyone. It requires extreme concentration.”
Sturtewagen knows exactly what he means: “My students at the academy can play it, but if they can play it well is another matter. It is very difficult to find the balance between not doing too much and keeping it interesting.”
The journey of Pärt’s hit composition is a remarkable one. “Last year, my daughter told me that she had found a beautiful song,” the Laken/Laeken-based flautist Caroline Peeters tells us. “It turned out to be ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’.”
In part thanks to the many soundtracks that have featured Pärt’s music over the past decade and a half (There Will Be Blood, Fahrenheit 9/11, Gravity…), he has become part of our collective consciousness. “His music is so accessible that you think you already know it when you hear his work for the first time.”
At Flagey, Revue Blanche will also play “Zwei Wiegenlieder”, which was originally written for choir and strings. Binon understands why Pärt enjoyed writing for choir and describes the human voice as the most perfect instrument. “As an Orthodox Christian, he became very interested in Gregorian chants and polyphony early on, but I suspect that it is probably eternal breathing that fascinates him. When members of a choir breathe at different times, you can sustain it for a very long time.”
His slow, hesitant tempo makes it difficult to sing his music, Evi Roelants tells us. She will be singing with the Flemish Radio Choir on the opening evening of the Arvo Pärt Weekend. “You have to be a trained singer to be able to sustain the notes.”
She once sang his “Kanon Pokajanen” (1997), an old liturgical text about atonement, which is comparable to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. “It was two hours of non-stop singing. The fact that we sat in a circle, took a quarter of a turn periodically, and were lit by candles made the whole experience even more spiritual.”
On Friday, the Flemish Radio Choir and the Brussels Philharmonic will perform two of Pärt’s more recent works: “Da Pacem Domine” (2004) was written as an expression of support for the victims of the terrorist attack in Madrid, and “Adam’s Lament” (2009) is equally socially engaged, about the loss of paradise. “Harking back to a bygone age, giving it a modern twist, and then offering the listener a platform for introspection in these hectic times: that is Pärt’s musical Valium.”
The message of peace and tolerance is a recurring theme in his oeuvre, and is an expression of his good-natured character, Sturtewagen says, who once met him in Tallinn.
“I was 16 and singing with De Munt/La Monnaie’s children’s choir, and we had been invited to tour with a 100-member choir as part of an exchange project between cultural capitals. Björk, a big fan of Pärt’s music, was also there. We sang ‘Which Was the Son of...’ (2000). It is a rhythmic piece inspired by Luke’s Gospel, in which all of Jesus’s ancestors are named like a mantra.”
The final word is for Kristaps Bergs, a 31-year-old Latvian who has lived in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe/Woluwe-Saint-Pierre since he became first cellist with the Brussels Philharmonic. Just like Pärt, he is originally from the Baltic region and he studied in Vienna, where Pärt emigrated in 1980 when his problems with the Soviet regime started.
“Pärt’s current popularity is probably due in part to the increasing attention for Baltic culture. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States, where people have always been interested in art and music, have developed incredibly. There is nothing artificial about Pärt’s magic and it is the perfect figurehead for the lively scene.”
> Arvo Pärt Weekend. 26 > 28/1, Flagey, Elsene/Ixelles