St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church moved into its present location by the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan in 1919, renovating and occupying a small tavern built on the spot in 1832. For decades, it welcomed Greek immigrants and worshippers to its humble sanctuary. By the 1970s, the thirty-five-foot-tall structure had been dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the burgeoning Financial District, particularly the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers which soared over 1,400 feet above from just across the street. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the South Tower collapsed, it leveled the church, which was the only building outside the main World Trade Center complex to be destroyed in the attacks on New York of that day. Mingled among the debris and destruction were the ashes of lost relics of Sts. Nicholas, Catherine, and Sava, donated by Czar Nicholas II.
Those ashes were on the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s mind when he composed “O Holy Father Nicholas,” a piece written for the opening of the new St. Nicholas Church and National Shrine at Ground Zero. In a curious juxtaposition, the piece received its world premiere in the atrium of the first-century B.C. Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the Monday night I was in attendance, a contingent of Orthodox bishops and priests sat in front of center stage, the grand doorway of Osiris’s temple rising from just a few feet behind.
As part of a concert billed as “Celebrating Arvo Pärt at The Met,” preceding and following the premiere was a selection of many of Pärt’s most famous pieces from his nearly seventy-year career. Experiential Orchestra collaborated on these works with a newly formed choir, Artefact Ensemble, with conducting duties passed back and forth between EXO’s James Blachly and Artefact Ensemble’s Benedict Sheehan.
The performance began with “Fratres” (1977), perhaps Pärt’s best-known work and an exemplar of his tintinnabuli (“little bells”) style. Pärt’s tintinnabuli pieces are poised, elegant conversations between deceptively simple diatonic melodies and a strict choice of notes from a harmonic triad. While the melody is allowed to wander more freely, the harmonic grounding serves as the melody’s “guardian angel,” as Pärt puts it.
“Fratres,” though not written with any specific arrangement of instruments in mind, is usually taken up by a violinist and pianist or violinist and string orchestra; the latter arrangement was used here. Nine melodic segments are separated by ten so-called “refuges” of brief percussion and silence.
“Fratres” presents a particular challenge for the stamina of the violinist (in this case the concertmaster, Michelle Ross), whose arsenal must include a gymnastic array of harmonics, arpeggi, bounced bowing, col legno (the stick of the bow bounced across the strings), and simultaneous bowing and pizzicato. Ross handled the harmonic passages well; in “Fratres,” this is particularly nerve-wracking for the performer, on whom the spotlight is directly cast while she navigates the ephemeral and often dissonant overtones produced by harmonic playing.
Advanced musical theorists can explain how “Fratres” and Pärt’s other tintinnabuli compositions have a highly mathematical, even algorithmical basis. Though “Fratres” has no specific religious connotation, many of Pärt’s other works are overtly religious, in rebellion against the state-enforced atheism that Pärt endured during his childhood and early career in Soviet Estonia.
Following “Fratres” was one such piece, “Vater Unser” (2005/2011), a setting of the German text of the Lord’s Prayer. Written, uncharacteristically for Pärt, from a spontaneously created melody, it is scored for countertenor or boy soprano with piano or orchestral accompaniment. Here the countertenor Eric S. Brenner sang beautifully and with requisite power, accompanied by the strings of EXO. The countertenor stepped back to take his place in the ranks of the choir, which then launched into “The Deer’s Cry” (2007), a setting in English of the Old Irish “Breastplate” prayer traditionally attributed to St. Patrick. A swing and force to the rhythm and a breathy bite to the consonants in words such as “Christ” lent this a cappella piece a decidedly gospel music–like verve.
“Silouan’s Song” (1991) followed, an instrumental piece awash in ebbing and flowing waves of crescendi in the strings. Despite being wordless, the music is inspired by a text written by St. Silouan, a Russian monk from Mount Athos. I detected slight tuning problems in the cellos; this was quickly addressed afterwards and was not noticeable for “Salve Regina.” This piece for orchestra and chorus was the emotional centerpiece of the evening, swelling to a gorgeous climax that reminded me of the effusiveness of Orthodox hymnody. At the same time, the piece seemed to fluctuate between Eastern and Western European flavors, favoring the latter toward the end. This speaks, I think, to Pärt’s origin in Estonia, a country of topsy-turvy religious complexity: the native Lutheranism having been almost eradicated under the Soviets, the Orthodox faith of the country’s Russian minority constitutes the largest religious denomination.
Witness, then, a product of Pärt’s earlier period when he still labored under the watchful eyes of the Soviet censors: “Summa” (1977), which Pärt has called his most “strict and enigmatic” tintinnabuli work. Like “Silouan’s Song,” it is an instrumental piece for orchestra inspired by a text, in this case the Latin Credo—a subtle act of protest against the atheist regime.
Following this was the much-awaited world premiere of “O Holy Father Nicholas” (2021), based on the English text from a prayer in the Orthodox liturgy. Bookended by two short, contrastingly ebullient settings of the Trinitarian formula (“In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit”), the main section of the a cappella hymn is a solemn outpouring of emotion, a repeated invocation of the words “O Holy Saint Nicholas, pray unto God for us.” Pärt, whose compositional style can sometimes resemble theme and variation, paints this phrase in varying emotional shades, resolving the piece in a peaceful silence before the Trinity is sunnily invoked at the end. All sections of the choir shone in this performance, particularly the basses; smiles on the choir and conductor’s faces at the end showed that all were pleased with the results.
“Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” (1976) kept the emotional stakes high. An overtly personal expression of Pärt’s sorrow at the death of Britten in 1976, a composer whom he had just discovered but felt a deep affinity for, the piece was one of Pärt’s first to attract attention in the West. “Cantus” steadily increases in intensity and volume as the entire orchestra, with spiral-like effect, approaches a mournful resolution on a single A-minor chord. It was the most impressive instrumental showpiece of the evening.
Bringing a close to the concert was “Da Pacem Domine” (2006) for choir and string orchestra, a hybrid between Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique and the Renaissance cantus firmus method. It was composed for a peace concert organized by the great viola da gambist and ensemble leader Jordi Savall, in memory of the victims of the 2004 terror attacks in Madrid. Of “Da Pacem Domine” I can only say that it contains Pärt’s loveliest writing for human voice, and was a pleasure to hear in care of the Artefact Ensemble.
I felt ultimately that the concert’s staging was a case of style distracting from substance, though one must give the organizers credit for effort: colored lights were shone at close range into the temple’s reflecting pool, casting large, rippling shadows onto the walls; a set of powerful floodlights pointed at the stage burst alight at the most dramatic climaxes of the music; booming bass drums and tubular bells were mixed through a PA system cleverly disguised within a pair of obelisks.
My guess is that these dramatics were organized by the sound and light crew of Experiential Orchestra; their website promises that “all [our] concerts feature some experiential quality. [EXO’s] founder James Blachly says ‘my sense is that in this age of technology and speed, we crave full-body experiences that sweep us up and where we are invited to hold nothing back.’”
I found this “experience” at odds with the requested solemnity of the evening: silence was asked for between pieces, and no comments were given before or after the performance. Yet with the bombastics of the light show, the internal drama of the individual soul’s search for meaning in God—something Pärt’s music dramatizes beautifully—risked replacement by a kind of scripted melodrama of collective emotional “experience,” lights rising and falling on queue like a bizarre inversion of a television laugh track.
The musicians and of course Pärt deserve great credit. This is music that has the power to elicit profoundly people’s deepest feelings on its own; my instinct would be to let it speak for itself.