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White Light Festival: Adam's Lament

by Michael Cirigliano II

Latvian Radio Choir, White Light Festival, Feast of Music

After performing a concert of modern Baltic music in Midtown Friday night, the Latvian Radio Choir made their way uptown to Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, joining forces with the Sinfonietta Riga for a program dedicated to the mystical Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. Although deeply religious in tone, Pärt’s music transcends any segmentation of creed or belief, eschewing organized religion in order to give testament to a higher, humanistic perspective. And despite the overall sonic stasis, the Estonian’s works are incredibly difficult to perform, requiring a great amount of dedication and patience from performers and audiences alike.

The fully stocked evening included the Berliner Messe, composed in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Te Deum—both lengthy works that achieve new levels of profundity in approaching traditional texts of the Latin Mass. In many ways, the two compositions mirror each other perfectly; the Berliner Messe’s quiet consolation juxtaposed with the Te Deum’s triumphant jubilation.

Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste took control of the groups, contouring a great sense of the vocal lines while giving the strings the precise direction they needed. The choir melted beautifully together during the Veni Sancte Spiritus, traversing the tricky alteration of consonance and dissonance found throughout all of Pärt’s scores. The closing Agnus Dei was icy in its initial lines—high sopranos invoking their chant over violin harmonics—with the tenors and basses adding heft before both groups fell silent after the final syllable.

The Te Deum was constructed along similar lines, but explored more of the louder sonorities capable of both the choir and strings. Great use was made of the solo voices within the choir, with incredible pacing and balances set by Kaljuste.

Given the weight of both works in the first half, it would have actually been preferable to end the concert there, leaving the audience with a well-rounded presentation of two of the composer’s sacred works. The second half, unfortunately, didn’t match in terms of intensity. Although well performed, the Sinfonietta’s showcase, 1994’s Trisagion (Thrice Holy) failed to add any new ideas to the program, as the work even began with a seemingly direct quotation of the five-note figuration that ended the Te Deum. 

Adam’s Lament, the most recent work of the evening, gave a rich account of the composer Russian Orthodox setting, and the choir gave a cinematic account of Adam’s struggle with the misery and self-loathing felt after his expulsion from Eden. Pärt made the orchestra’s contribution more egalitarian, with heavy, Stravinsky-like dissonances mixing with col legno rhythms and shrieking harmonics from the violins. Adopting a wide range of vivid colors from all the performers, the piece sounded like a soundtrack to a film yet to be conceived.

A large congratulation to Artistic Director Jane Moss for daring to present such a program, and—given the quiet intensity felt throughout the evening—one can’t help but to think that this concert was perhaps most emblematic of the White Light Festival’s core mission. 

White Light Festival, Latvian Radio Choir, Sinfonietta Riga