Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror -- indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy -- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper.
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
On our way to hear the City Choir of Washington's Spring concert, we were discussing Arvo Pärt, whose 1984 "Te Deum" was on the program. Kari had listened to a recording and then, on her own, also found the heartbreaking "Spiegel im Spiegel" that drew me to Pärt's music years ago. We agreed that it was intensely emotional, personal and stirring, in direct contrast to dry descriptions of Pärt's compositional method.
He calls it "tintinnabuli," from the Latin for "bell," and it consists very simply of melodic lines moving in full steps against arpeggiated chords. Maestro Shafer, speaking before the performance, called Pärt a "holy minimalist," which sounds pretty boring. Peter Phillips explains, "When a bell is struck, one hears the central note, usually called the fundamental or struck note, which is encased in harmonics. It's a kind of chord cluster around the key note. This is where Pärt's close-note harmony comes from."
Interesting, but none of this touches what I feel when I hear Pärt's mysterious, eerie and compelling works. So we were delighted to find that the emotional reaction is what he was trying to invoke! Shafer said Pärt wanted to eliminate the intellectual and open up a prayerful dialogue with God in which we listen with our hearts open to answers beyond rational knowledge. According to the program notes, Pärt likened his "Te Deum" to "the serenity of a mountain panorama, and his setting has something of this calm yet formidable scene in its sound palette and construction." Kari and I are both goofy about mountains. We knew we were in the right place.
It was only my second performance of the City Choir, and I'm still dumbfounded by the level of musicianship they bring. The killer crisp K attacks on "Kyrie," which immediately died out to near soundlessness. The swelling men's voices which are always stirring. The dropped jaws of the singers; the careful enunciations; the sound like a single, communal exhalation, a prism that reunites all the separate strands of color. And always the agile left hand of Shafer, coaxing and nuancing, while his baton sketches intricate patterns.
The first half of the concert was Mozart's "Coronation Mass." Mozart is Mozart: stately with a side order of fizz, bubbling up into giddiness and finishing with a mellow geniality. You know what you're going to get, and despite some misgivings from the choir that they were inadequately prepared, they delivered. I loved the Mozart. I loved the soprano and tenor soloists and was sad that I couldn't hear the mezzo and the baritone better; Wolfgang gave the showoffy stuff to the high voices. Later I discovered that the soprano was also featured in my previous City Choir experience. I guess she's my personal soprano soloist, and I wonder how I could ever have done anything good enough to deserve her.
But it was the Pärt that I really wanted to hear, live, from a choir that could hold those tight harmonies and deliver the drama confidently and worshipfully.
How do you describe a mountain panorama? My colleague Sara used to mock my obsession with mountains. Yeah, yeah, she knew, she'd seen pictures. Very nice. Then a few years ago she had a close encounter with mountains and returned, contrite. "You're right," she admitted. "Now I get it." I never really thought I needed to explain mountains, just as I didn't really think Shafer needed to explain Pärt. How could anyone not feel it, this august Presence, this expanse and majesty and Otherness?
Shafer had warned us to listen as carefully to the silences as to the sounds, and he held us rapt at the end of the piece, arms lifted but hands closed, the musicians silent, for what seemed a very long time. It was effective in its tension. The piece doesn't end with a crashing cadence demanding applause and Bravos; it ripples into the distance and, like the wind in the willows, we know it will return, changed and renewed.
And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.