December 03, 2015
(+++) THE PEACE SEEKERS
Arvo Pärt and Robert Wilson: The Lost Paradise—A Film by Günter Atteln. Accentus Music DVD. $29.99.
Arvo Pärt and Robert Wilson: Adam’s Passion. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
Bernstein: Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish”; Missa Brevis; The Lark. Claire Bloom, narrator; Kelley Nassief, soprano; Paulo Mestre, countertenor; Maryland State Boychoir, Washington Chorus, São Paulo Symphony Choir, Members of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
Constance Hauman: Falling into Now. Constance Hauman, vocals and piano; Ross Pederson, drums, percussion, bass, guitar and midi. Isotopia Records. $16.99.
Fans of the gentle, evanescent music of Arvo Pärt and the gentle, evanescent thinking of the man behind it will be overjoyed at the release of two new Accentus Music DVDs focused on Estonia’s most-famous contemporary composer. The Lost Paradise is a film in which German director Günter Atteln follows Pärt for a year, through Estonia and to Japan, Germany and Italy. Learning that Pärt feels especially at home in Estonia’s quiet forests is no surprise – his music reflects those woodlands as clearly as that of Sibelius reflects the countryside of Finland as well as its history. But Pärt’s work has a spiritual undercurrent that is missing in that of Sibelius, and a pervasive quietness that paradoxically comes through even in its louder sections. In the documentary, Pärt himself speaks of the experience of pain and its positive elements, the way in which one comes through it with greater understanding, empathy, sensitivity. His music may not reflect this directly – it is too insubstantial for anything as prosaic as a specific program – but the sensibility surely pervades the sounds that Pärt carefully crafts (seeing the meticulous way he works at his piano is a highlight of The Lost Paradise). Pärt, who is now 80, looks fragile in this documentary, and he speaks slowly and sometimes haltingly, yet the conviction with which he approaches his music and its communicative ability comes through clearly. The Lost Paradise becomes, in addition to a look at a year in Pärt’s life, a kind of framing tale for Adam’s Passion, a stage work in which director Robert Wilson uses four pieces by Pärt to tell the familiar tale of the Fall – a story that Pärt considers both individual to everyone who sees and hears it, and universal as a tragic foundation for all of humanity.
Adam’s Passion itself is available in its entirety as a separate DVD, recorded at the work’s world première in Tallinn in May 2015. This is a composite work containing four Pärt pieces: Sequentia, Adam’s Lament, Tabula rasa and Miserere. The music itself is scarcely uplifting either in its sequence or within its individual sections – Pärt does see Adam’s story as essentially tragic, as many have before him – yet there is a level of comfort communicated by the way Pärt delicately balances vocal and instrumental forces, and through the deliberate pacing of so much of the material. Pärt himself is religious in a largely orthodox way, and his works attempt to connect the human with the divine again and again, with full acceptance of the difficulty of doing this and the uncertainty of success. Indeed, Pärt’s music can remind devout listeners that if God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is “no.” Neither Pärt’s philosophy nor his mostly quiet but not-always-serene music is to all tastes: his works sometimes seem emotionally, if not harmonically, like throwbacks to a much earlier time of simple faith and forthright belief. Yet Pärt is intellectually curious about the universe and humanity’s place in it, and his music is more reflective than insistent in its spirituality. It is rarefied, yes, but it is rarefied for a reason. Aldous Huxley once wrote, "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” The comment is particularly appropriate where the music of Pärt is concerned. The DVDs of The Lost Paradise and Adam’s Passion show that for Pärt, silence and music are inextricably intertwined, and both are expressions of faith and devotion, as well as a questing toward higher realms without any certainty of reaching them, and without knowing what will be discovered if one does reach them – except for one thing: surcease of pain.
Pain, and a way past it to peace, are equally central in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” whose original 1963 version is offered under Marin Alsop’s leadership on a new Naxos CD. Alsop considers herself a Bernstein protégé, and certainly she shows rare sensitivity to his thinking and his wrestling with the issue of faith in this recording. The original version of this symphony features a woman narrator, and that lends the questioning and uncertainty of the work an additional layer of intensity and pathos, which Alsop fully explores. “Kaddish” is the Jewish prayer for the dead, but in this symphony the narrator offers to say it not for a human being but for God – and then goes on, through four movements in which Bernstein characteristically juxtaposes tonality and atonality and sets the two approaches against each other, to strive for peace and contentment that remain elusive even at the work’s end. Claire Bloom is an effective narrator, and the solo and choral elements of the symphony are well handled here, with the music feelingly played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The underlying layer of intellectuality beneath the emotional side of Bernstein’s work gets somewhat short shrift in a performance designed to grab listeners and hold their attention as Bernstein works through his personal issues of faith and, through them, issues that may well be troubling the audience as well. Bernstein eventually suggests that interdependence of God and humanity, not slavish obedience of one to the other, is the route to understanding and a better world – but even this, the music tells listeners, is not a fully satisfactory solution, and in fact such a solution may not exist on Earth at all. The considerable thoughtfulness of the “Kaddish” symphony comes through especially well in this performance, and the firm hand with which Alsop guides the performers is welcome. The symphony is bracketed on the CD by two works that are musically related to each other and related thematically to the symphony’s concerns – and are both performed by musicians from São Paulo rather than Baltimore. The Lark, which originally dates to 1955, is based on the life of Joan of Arc as interpreted by Lillian Hellman in L’Alouette. Changes to the work in 2008 and 2012 resulted in the concert version with narration heard here, which makes the spiritual elements of the story – elements whose certainty contrasts strongly with the questioning of faith in the symphony – come clearly to the fore. Bernstein adapted the music of The Lark into his 1988 Missa Brevis, and this work too has a forthright certainty of faith that is noticeably and quite deliberately absent in the symphony. Both The Lark and Missa Brevis also contain significant theatrical elements – Bernstein was as much a man of the theater as of the concert hall – and it is these to which Alsop pays particular attention in her interpretations, making the entire CD into a work in which the theatrical and musical worlds intersect to probe the grand questions that continue to befuddle and engage humanity and deny so many people an ultimate assurance of contentment and peace.
The peace sought by soprano Constance Hauman in a CD of a very different kind is that of purely human relationships: what is spiritual on the Isotopia Records disc called Falling into Now is human love, understanding and acceptance. Bernstein was a pioneer in mixing theatrical, classical and popular musical genres, a crossover melding that has become quite common among contemporary composers; and it is this approach that Hauman, as composer as well as performer, cultivates. Her objective appears to be to bring greater seriousness of both words and performance to the popular-music genre: all 14 of these songs (she wrote 12 of them and co-wrote the other two) are about emotional pain and inner turmoil, the desire for love and peace and acceptance and the difficulty of finding any of the three. What Hauman tries to do here is to reach beyond the formulaic nature of relationships as they are generally portrayed both in opera and in pop music: she strives to elicit empathy, not just sympathy, through stories of love and loss, betrayal and emotional turmoil, anger and much-desired equanimity. Indeed, she tries rather too hard to pull all these strands together: her voice is a fine one, which makes the music more effective but denies it the raw power and emotional connection that the audience so often receives from lesser singers, whose vocal imperfections make it seem they are trying to hold themselves together even though, in reality, they simply cannot hit many of the notes properly. Hauman is expressive in music, lyrics and delivery, but it is a controlled expressiveness, which indeed has more in common with opera than with popular music. The arc of the songs, from desperation and depression to eventual hopefulness and learned, hard-earned strength, is a familiar one in music of all sorts, most definitely including the theatrical type. There is real pain communicated in some of these songs, but it is pain filtered not only through the organization of words and music but also through the vocal quality that Hauman brings to the material. Somewhat oddly, the effectiveness of her delivery undermines the intensity of her material. The music, which has significant jazz influences, is well-written and well-performed, but Falling into Now ultimately falls a little short in its earnest desire to use a voice of better-than-usual quality to communicate experiences that are, at bottom, comparatively mundane.