London, Day 3, Pärt Deux

I wanted to say a little more about yesterday’s events. In particular, I needed to talk about the 8:00 concert. It, too, was excellent. Every piece was performed with great technique, marvelous sound, and insightful interpretation.

The BBC orchestra is really marvelous. Their proportions in the strings are very different than my orchestra: 18-20 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 6 basses. That makes for a much less top-heavy sound. Of course, I listened attentively to the violas!

I was very happy to hear Pärt’s Symphony no. 1 (1963). It is so different from the tintinnabuli style he originated and for which he is known, preceding the earliest example of it (Für Alina) by thirteen years. Likewise preceding the tintinnabuli period is Symphony no. 3 (1971), although it was more lush sounding than no. 1, reflecting Pärt’s earliest experimentation with chant. It concluded the first half. I would love to listen to both of them again.

The second half began with Pärt’s Berliner Messe (“Berlin Mass”) for orchestra and choir. I was thrilled to hear this live. It has been a deep favorite of mine for more than 11 years. For most of that time I have known it in its setting for four voices and organ. More recently I acquired a recording of it for choir and orchestra. Last night’s performance was as moving as I had hoped it would be. The BBC Symphony Chorus is not as perfect a group as the BBC Singers are (that is, the choir for the 6:00 performance), but they made fine music of this deep and hopeful work.

The conclusion of the concert was Tabula Rasa, a double concerto for two violins, strings, and prepared piano. It consists of two movements: a frenetic chase and then a slow, almost elegiac meditation. The composition comes from very early in Pärt’s current period. This was a decidedly outstanding performance. Every one of the many notes in the first movement was well placed, and the introspection of movement two was traversed with appropriate confidence. (There’s something in that last sentence that’s instructive for preaching.)

At the end, however, Tammi and I had to question the conductor’s wisdom in choosing to place this piece last on the program. It ends very quietly, with one section after another ceasing to play, until only the two soloists are playing. And then they stop, and the piece continues for several more counted measures of complete silence. And that was the end of the concert. Odd? We thought so. Maybe we’re too American in our expectations, but one would think that a better end to the concert would be something like the energetic last movement of Symphony no. 3. Indeed, that’s what was supposed to end the concert, but it was decided (perhaps for stage logistics, or union requirements) to end with “Tabula Rasa.”

But I was not at all disappointed. I am so glad that I was able to be there. As I said in the last post, this sequence of events was the reason why I initially wanted to come to London and why I included it in my grant proposal. Finally getting to hear Pärt’s music live and performed so well means a lot to me. As Tammi and I entered the Hall to take our excellent seats, I turned to her and whispered, “I think I’m going to cry!”

Not all of my readers will get my enthusiasm for Pärt’s music. Let me try this way of summing it all up: I hear in his music such pure, simple joy in God, an earnestness for the core affirmations of the Christian faith that wants to move outward and inward and bring us all along with it. For me, that’s what Pärt does in his music.

Author: Dan Griswold

A good life is motivated by love. My loves: the Triune God, family, music, friends, parishioners, theology.

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