Bannister meets Pärt in Wales

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A first-hand report from Peter Bannister, who attended the September 9, 2010, premiere of Arvo Pärt’s In Spe at Vale of Glamorgan Festival, which was made possible, in part, by contributions from Soli Deo Gloria. Peter was SDG’s representative at the Festival and gave a pre-concert lecture, “Arvo Pärt at 75,” at the BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, Wales.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hello from Wales, I am writing from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival to give you an immediate report on Thursday’s sold-out concert with Pärt’s new setting of In Spe, the cantata Cecilia, vergine romana and his Fourth Symphony. It was a remarkable occasion that is difficult to convey in words. Thankfully, it will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on October 3 and available for a week afterwards on the Internet.* The BBC National Orchestra of Wales did a particularly great job with the Symphony, under Tõnu Kaljuste (a piece which is deceptively hard, like much of Pärt’s music, despite its apparent simplicity), with their performance being absolutely the equal of and maybe superior to the L.A. Philharmonic’s recording just released on ECM. At the reception—which was attended by many significant cultural figures in British arts—Pärt himself was visibly extremely moved (he was visiting the Festival for the second time, having been here in 1996).

I was extremely surprised at how many people were there for my pre-concert talk on Pärt’s music.** And the quality of listening as I spoke was intense, as the feedback I received afterwards confirmed. There is something compelling about this subject-matter. But then, Pärt’s music isn’t any ordinary music. As I wrote in my tribute and heard confirmed from personal testimonies here, one amazing thing about his works is their therapeutic use. Apparently, Pärt’s pieces have as much of a life in cancer wards as they do in concert halls. This is where recorded music is able to reach people in a variety of life contexts where live performance cannot. Although some of us regularly bemoan the lack of audiences at concerts, we shouldn’t forget that Pärt’s music enters the intimacy of many people’s lives through recording in a way that is extremely powerful. And it seems endowed with a remarkable healing power that is inexplicable in human terms, but which to me is unmistakably the power of the Spirit of Christ.

Arvo Part

It was, of course, an immense privilege to meet the man himself. He seemed a little bemused at our first contact on Wednesday, when I mentioned that I would be speaking about his Fourth Symphony before the concert, and referred me to the sleeve notes on the new ECM release; he kindly offered me a copy but didn’t make any further comment. Things were, however, very different on Thursday. For most of the rehearsal, I was sitting with him and his manager from Universal Edition in Vienna, so I had a chance to converse with him about the première of Cecilia, vergine romana with Myung-Whun Chung in Rome and his contact with the ecumenical monastery at Bose*** in Italy, among other things.

Pärt didn’t attend my pre-concert talk, which was probably a good thing, as it isn’t easy listening to someone laud you publicly to the skies for 30 minutes, but I did give him the text, and he appeared genuinely pleased at our meeting. Before I left, I felt that I had to thank him for some words that didn’t make it into my speech, but which I have been pondering over the last few days. In a fine German treatment of his work by theologian Constantin Gröhn, Pärt rejects the idea frequently stated in the press that his music is about ‘meditation,’ if by that is meant some sort of free-floating, unfocused spirituality that dissolves into the ether. Instead, he proposes the word ‘concentration,’ which of course goes much better with the musical reduction that is a key to his technique. Gröhn suggests that Pärt is attempting a kind of ‘distillation’ through contemplation. And what is distilled is encapsulated in the words of Pärt’s for which I thanked him as we said goodbye: “Christus is der Konzentrat” (“Christ is the concentrate,” which sounds far better in German). His response: “Das ist wahr!”(“That's true!”).

Grace,
Peter

* We’ll keep you posted on the status of the BBC Radio 3 broadcast and confirm that it is available to U.S. listeners.
—SDG

** Click here to read the complete text of Peter's talk

*** If you go to the website of the Bose monastery, an ecumenical community not unlike Taizé in France which is trying to reconcile Western and Eastern Christianity, you will find Pärt (who has been a guest there) listed as a ‘pneumatophore’ or ‘bearer of the Spirit,’ alongside Taizé’s Brother Roger (Schutz), the Frenchman Abbé Pierre and the current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I. The word pneumatophoros comes from a term associated in early Christianity with the Desert Fathers; for me, it is particularly inspiring—and challenging—to think that a composer should be such a contemporary ‘Spirit-bearer.’