The Ensemble preview: Arvo Pärt’s mesmerizing music

Portland and Eugene concerts explore the musical world of one of the greatest living composers


Now in its fifth season, The Ensemble, one of Oregon’s premier vocal and chamber music groups, has delighted audiences around the Pacific Northwest with performances of music dating from the Renaissance up to the last century. On Saturday and Sunday, the Ensemble, augmented by string quartet, will perform its most modern program to date: a selection of music from the world renowned Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world for five consecutive years and his music, rooted in Catholic and Russian Orthodox traditions, has been praised for its ability to strike a spiritual resonance in the hearts of believers and non-believers alike.

Arvo Pärt. Photo: Luciano Rossetti,ECM Records.

Arvo Pärt. Photo: Luciano Rossetti, ECM Records.

The power of the word plays an absolutely essential role in the music of Arvo Pärt, says Ensemble founder Patrick McDonough. “Texts are very important to me in choosing repertoire.  All of the texts for this concert portray a deep yearning.” McDonough suggests that serious listeners should read and contemplate the texts beforehand, so that they may more fully “step into the mesmerizing world that Pärt creates.”

A notorious perfectionist, Pärt has a reputation for making numerous revisions to his pieces, even decades after their completion. The Ensemble’s only instrumental piece for the March 19th and 20th concerts, Fratres (composed in 1977) has been been so extensively re-imagined that there are 18 distinct versions of the piece in Pärt’s official list of compositions. This concert features the 1989 version for string quartet.

Another expression of the composer’s rigor for detail is his fondness for symmetry. The Ensemble’s most ambitious piece of current repertoire is the 1985 Stabat Mater for string trio and vocal trio, which, running roughly 25 minutes long, is a singular symmetric form. The introduction and coda to Stabat Mater are both precisely 108 measures long and feature the same canonic textures. Composed of four stanza groupings from the original medieval hymn, Part’s sacred work recounts the sorrow of Mary as she watched her son suffer upon the cross. The groups of stanzas are divided by three instrumental interludes, the second of which marks the climax and structural center of the piece.

The Ensemble performs in Eugene and Portland.

The Ensemble performs in Eugene and Portland.

“Ein Wallfahrtslied” (“Pilgrim’s Song”) is certainly the most peculiar piece in The Ensemble’s upcoming program. Although written in 1984, six years after the official emergence of Pärt’s mature and predominantly non-chromatic style (dubbed “tintinnabulli”), it is extremely chromatic, closer to the composer’s earlier approach. Still, Part’s stylistic principles are just as present here as in the rest of the program, just translated to an extended harmonic language.

As the only multi-movement work lined up for this month’s performances, and the only one featuring all eight performers, Missa Syllabica (1977) or “syllabic mass” is naturally the most varied piece in The Ensemble’s program. The still and sorrowful Kyrie is very much an analog to the composer’s solo piano piece, Für Alina (1976), with its simple two-voice counterpoint and grand silences. At the center of this six-movement work lie its two polar extremities of character: the bleak lamentation of the Credo and the Sanctus’s ecstatic proclamation of triumph over suffering.

Pärt’s music appeals to a wide audience and has received praise from successful artists of other musical genres, such as Thom Yorke (frontman of rock group Radiohead), and Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk, as well as by other leading contemporary composers like Steve Reich. While still deeply sophisticated and undoubtedly a product of our time, his music has a sense of timelessness and universality that many feel is missing from modern music. Ensemble director Patrick McDonough hopes that the Eugene and Portland audiences will take a leap of faith into that timelessness this weekend and experience the depth of Pärt’s music. “Although some people find contemporary music daunting, allow yourself to be challenged by what Pärt has to say,” he requests, “I think you’ll find it rewarding in the end.”

The Ensemble performs Arvo Pärt’s music at 7 pm March 19 at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church,
1857 Potter Street, and at 4 pm March 20 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, 1620 SW Park Avenue. Tickets are available online.

Justin Graff is a junior in music composition in the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance and is a member of the Oregon Composers Forum. He is a student of Drs. Robert Kyr, David Crumb, and Terry McQuilkin. His music is available on SoundCloud Music. Follow him on Facebook. Read Graff’s ArtsWatch memoir of his encounter with Arvo Part last year.

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