John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at the Café Caryle
Preview: Winter Jazzfest 2017

MetLiveArts Presents Arvo Pärt's Kanon Pokajanen

by Nick Stubblefield


Before even setting foot into the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday night, I knew I was in for a one-of-a-kind concert experience. An eerie blue light, visible from the street, emanated through the large glass panels of the Temple of Dendur, flooding into the museum's backyard, Central Park. It was suddenly apparent that the long pilgrimage from Brooklyn had been well worth the trip.

Inside the hall, even more stunning vistas greeted me. The temple, usually seen by visitors during daylight, now glowed with warm orange light, the museum walls awash in blue.  The contrast suggested hints of fire and ice. Part of the audience sat in a U-shaped formation around the temple's archway, while the rest lined the outer perimeter of the room. The scene was meditative and spiritual -- and the music had not even started. 

The Westminster Williamson Voices processioned into the center, and with little delay began the opening ode to Arvo Pärt's Kanon Pokajanen, the work that would comprise the whole of the program, without interruption. The singers, all members of Rider University's Westminster Choir College, quickly established a confident, powerful presence with spacious, forte harmonies. Acoustics are a critical factor in any performance, live or recorded, but for the Kanon - a work for large, unaccompanied choir - they were a defining aspect of the presentation. The space itself, presumably designed without attention to acoustics, acted as an uncredited audio engineer for the ensemble, dialing in plenty of reverb without blurring the voices. 


Like much of Arvo Pärt's oeuvre, Kanon Pokajanen is a religious work. It's comprised of odes in a traditional Canon structure still practiced in the Orthodox church. Even without a Christian context, this performance would have felt innately spiritual. Composed of many long tones layered in rich Gregorian polyphony, the music inspires stillness, thoughtfulness, and reflection, all of which are aspects of a spiritual life. It's important to note, too, that Pärt's work is not strictly Gregorian, though it was strongly influenced by it. His work melds the traditional chant with harsh but beautiful dissonance in a musical language of his own design which he calls "tintinnabuli.” The choral effects employed by Pärt were channeled to sublime perfection by the choir. The voices blended into drones with a synthesizer-like precision and cleanliness. Occasionally a tenor or soprano with a strong vibrato would punctuate the membrane of sound, adding an element of tension to an otherwise tranquil texture. 

For those seeking a traditional, comfortable concert event, there's plenty of venues around town that can offer that. The Met specializes in taking music out of its natural habitat and injecting it with new energy and mystique and, as such, has become a vital destination for our city.